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School Board should be looking beyond the district in its search for a new superintendent

Are they kidding? Why would the members of the Buffalo School Board default to an internal candidate for superintendent of one of the nation’s most troubled school districts rather than cast a wide net to find the best possible person for the position?

If that is the tack that the School Board majority takes in this momentous decision, then its members are aiming for some goal other than competent, professional leadership with the freedom to do the job.

Reports are that three district employees are on the list of those being considered for deputy superintendent, with the understanding that he or she would move into the top job when Interim Superintendent Donald A. Ogilvie steps down later this year. They are Will Keresztes, associate superintendent of student support service; Genelle Morris, assistant superintendent of accountability; and James Weimer, principal of the Emerson School of Hospitality. Weimer may have the inside track, given the disturbing belief of some board members that a principal would make the best choice.

It’s bizarre. Weimer has done yeoman work at his school, but a chasm divides the task of running a school from running a dysfunctional district in which board members bitterly squabble among themselves, the majority bloc members are in their own conflict and the interim superintendent – a qualified and highly respected educator – has announced he wants out because of it.

By what tortured calculation does a school principal – any principal – have the background to succeed in that kind of lion’s den? The only reason to hire a principal is to have someone inexperienced enough to control. But a board’s job isn’t to micromanage a superintendent; it’s to hire the best possible candidate, give him an assignment and let him complete it.

The Buffalo School Board loves to micromanage. It did so in the past and it’s doing it now. Ogilvie called the board on it in a News story from January. It’s like working with nine CEOs, he said, each with his own ideas on how to run things. The consequence, he said, was fatal: “The board table is a place where good intentions go to die.”

What professional is going to want to work in that environment, let alone one where board members are forever taking potshots at one another and where, from the sidelines, the teachers union is throwing rocks? Demand for such leaders is high enough that they can go where their chances of success won’t be jeopardized by their own employer.

Still, hiring a principal – or even a central office administrator – from within the district makes no sense. If the district wants to hire a deputy superintendent, fine. It can do that, and the winner – if that’s the right word – can even run the district while the district engages in a searching, national effort to hire a superintendent with appropriate experience who wants to take on the admittedly daunting challenge of helping this troubled school district rise to its potential.

But the board would do well to resolve its own internal problems first. Two years ago, Carl Paladino was elected to the board with a promise of reform. Last year, his support helped to bring on two new members, giving the board a new majority committed to reform.

Not much has happened. It remains early in this board’s existence, true, but when it considers turning to the principal of one of its schools to lead the way out of a mess that it helped to create, it has thrown up its hands. It’s rolling the dice, and that’s no way to run an operation that costs nearly $1 billion and that is charged with accomplishing one of the most important functions of any society.

It is, perhaps, too much to ask the board to put aside its differences in service of the larger cause of attracting a qualified superintendent who has a chance of succeeding. Such is the poisonous state of relations.

But if it doesn’t, what is the chance of improvement here? The answer is none, and that’s when the state or federal government will have to move in. This board is marching the district to an unhappy place but one that, in the end, may be more desirable than the dreadful conditions that now pass for leadership.