Share this article

print logo

Buffalo’s School Board majority just got schooled

It was only a matter of time. Sooner or later, the CEO types running Buffalo’s School Board would sprint into the brick wall of reality.

The sound reverberating through the community last week was the “splat” of hard heads smashing into an immovable object.

Ouch. That’s gotta hurt.

If the pain comes with enlightenment, Buffalo schools – and every kid, parent, teacher, community activist and business exec with a stake in them – will be better off.

The all-white board majority, in a district of mostly minority kids (and parents), thought they could hand-pick a superintendent, presumably to do their bidding. There was no community outreach, no wider search. If anyone didn’t like it, tough. The majority has (barely) the needed five votes to push it through. Time and again during its nine months in power, the Gang of Five has crammed decisions down the community’s collective throat.

Those best-laid plans shattered last week – along with the board majority’s force-feeding sensibilities. Parents, teachers, clergy and others vented their displeasure at Wednesday’s board meeting. They want a process, they want transparency, they want a voice. Mostly, they want to feel a part of the decisions made in the district where their kids go to school.

That’s not too much to ask.

The heated spectacle apparently convinced superintendent-in-waiting James Weimer that staying as principal at doing-nicely Emerson School of Hospitality was more enticing than jumping into a firestorm. Who can blame him?

With Weimer’s about-face, there is no easy-pickin’s superintendent alternative for the board majority – who apparently don’t have a handy Plan B. It’s a crisis of their own making. More than that, it’s a symptom of the board majority’s top-down, we-rule, no-consensus mentality. And that, it’s increasingly clear, is a problem.

In the classroom, they call this a “teachable moment.”

Whether it’s developing the downtown waterfront or reshaping a public school district, process counts. If you want people to buy into decisions, to applaud instead of to protest, they need to feel like their voices were heard; that they were not shut out – nor, basically, told to shut up. That’s not what’s happening in this district – from ex-Superintendent Pamela Brown’s forced exit (however deserved), to interim Superintendent Donald Ogilvie’s hiring, to the hard-wired, closed-ranks reach for Weimer that just blew up in the board majority’s face.

As an all-white board majority in a predominately minority district, they especially need to listen hard, speak softly and operate in the open. Given the racial politics, competing interests and changes needed in the district, the School Board ideally would be a model of conciliation and consensus-building. Instead, the board majority – during what looks increasingly like a Reign of Error – has fueled alienation, fed distrust and fostered animosity.

It’s no way to get things done, particularly when most of the reforms pushed by the board majority – from converting “failing” schools into charters to union work-rule changes for teachers – require hammering out agreements, not merely snapping your fingers.

It’s a school district, not a dictatorship. If that wasn’t obvious to the board majority before, it should be now.

The majority is steered by business executives – Carl Paladino, Larry Quinn, James Sampson – who are used to getting their way. Whatever the CEO says, goes – and whoever doesn’t like it gets shown the door.

A my-way-or-the-highway creed may work at a private company, though I have my doubts. But it’s undeniably a bad fit for a public school board. It makes me wonder whether some of the board majority, particularly Paladino, are temperamentally unsuited for the job. I don’t doubt the developer’s passion or intentions. But Paladino’s bully tactics of demonizing anyone who disagrees with him, personalizing disputes and launching frequent email rants against an ever-shifting cast of targets is no way to win friends and influence people.

“They’re acting like bullies, the five of them,” said Jim Anderson of Citizen Action, the good-government group. “They need to learn how to play with others.”

I agree with much of what the board majority wants to do. But they can’t make decisions from on high – without consensus or collaboration – and expect parents, clergy and community groups to nod their heads and march in lockstep.

“It’s fine to have ideas on how to fix things,” added Anderson, co-founder of the Alliance for Quality Education. “But you need to keep the process open. People from the community are saying, ‘Hey, we’re not going for this.’ ”

With the clock ticking and their backs to the wall, the board will likely do a quickie superintendent search, presumably – after the beating it took Wednesday – with community input. They can go hat-in-hand to Ogilvie, who had fallen from the majority’s favor by – egad! – pushing for compromise on other issues, and ask him to stay until the spot is filled.

Whatever happens next, the mess is at the board majority’s feet. They shoved Pamela Brown out last year. They embraced, then spurned, Ogilvie. They had plenty of time, during Ogilvie’s tenure, for a longer, harder superintendent search. Instead they ignored community protests and reached for a presumed yes-man. They somehow were blind – despite rising blowback at recent board meetings – to the anger and discontent of masses of people, particularly minorities.

They can’t ignore it any longer. Not after their hand-picked superintendent choice just got scared off.

I hope what happened serves as a lesson. Kids aren’t the only ones in this district who need an education.