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School Board’s effort to rebuild leadership is a good sign for a troubled district

Give this to the majority on the Buffalo School Board: It may be taking a huge risk in its plans to promote a school principal to the superintendent’s office rather than conducting a wider search, but having made that decision, it is going about it in what looks like a logical and organized fashion. That is some kind of a good sign.

Members of the majority are not only planning to make James G. Weimer Jr. the next superintendent, they are already working with him to create a leadership team they hope will guide the district in a new and successful direction. It’s something new for the district and, even for those who question the strategy, it is a watershed moment. The majority’s theory, best presented by Board member Larry Quinn, is that the best chance for the district to improve lies in the hands of its own most successful leaders. National searches haven’t worked in the past, they note, because outsiders can’t fathom the convoluted, labyrinthine, self-defeating ways of this tortured district. An internal candidate at least understands the nature of this beast and, in that regard, starts out ahead.

Weimer certainly comes to the position with a record of success. He has helped turn the Emerson School of Hospitality into one of the district’s top performers. Clearly, he has turnaround skills. The question – one over which we have harbored doubts – is whether any school principal, regardless of his success, has the background and skills to take on the task of leading an unwieldy and dysfunctional enterprise with an annual budget approaching $1 billion.

If anyone does, though, it would be someone such as Weimer. For him to have his best chance of success, though, requires him to hit the ground running, and that means coming into office with a capable team armed with a plan that it can execute. That appears to be what Quinn, Board President James M. Sampson and others are working to set in motion. It’s a wise step for which they deserve credit.

To be sure, their motives likely go beyond setting Weimer up for success. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has been adamant about attacking the problems of failing districts and Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, finally fed up with Buffalo’s chronic inability to improve, is pushing hard for a mayoral control model of governance for Buffalo. Mayor Byron W. Brown has said he is ready to take on that responsibility, though how, when or even whether it would actually happen remain undetermined.

It would be strange, indeed, if this reform-minded board didn’t want to make its mark before the state acts on this matter – if it acts on the matter. Indeed, Quinn has been clear that he believes mayoral control would be bound to fail, and count as yet another in an ongoing series of mistakes. We’re not as sure of that, though it would plainly qualify as a risk. Some districts, including New York City’s, have done well with mayoral control. Others haven’t.

In the end, though, the board’s impetus doesn’t really matter. The board’s job isn’t to wait for salvation to come riding in, but to act in defense of the students it is charged with educating – students who, for decades, have been cheated out of a proper education.

What is more, this isn’t the first time this majority has acted quickly. It hired Interim Superintendent Donald A. Ogilvie without delay and, when it determined that Ogilvie wasn’t going to take the district in the direction it wanted, it moved again to replace him. That’s a stark difference from the approach of the previous board majority, which did contortions to protect former Superintendent Pamela C. Brown, even after it was clear that she wasn’t up to the job.

This board acts. It doesn’t always get it right – and it may not be getting it right with Weimer – but it isn’t satisfied with failure.

That counts.