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Latest setback in search for a superintendent should point Buffalo School Board in a new direction

It was fraught with risk from the start. The plan by the majority bloc on the Buffalo School Board to reach down into the ranks and promote a principal to the superintendent’s post did have an internal logic, but it was in the way that a Hail Mary pass makes sense as the seconds tick away at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Sometimes it can work. But not this time.

The district is in bad shape. Its interim superintendent, Donald A. Ogilvie, didn’t perform as the majority bloc wanted and he cut his service to one year. The district needed a replacement by July 1 and the five-member majority didn’t look beyond its own employee base for a couple of reasons. One was that people hired from the outside have chronically failed in Buffalo, owing largely to the district’s Byzantine and dysfunctional ways. The second and overarching problem is the district’s Byzantine and dysfunctional ways. It’s a buyer’s market for superintendent candidates in large districts. Given that, why would anyone come to a district where board members squabble like the children they are supposed to lead? It is, without doubt, a hard sell. But it’s now the task that the School Board is facing.

Because of district politics and the abuse heaped on the majority’s choice for superintendent – James G. Weimer, the principal of Emerson School of Hospitality – Weimer thought twice about taking the job and then backed out. So did the people he was approaching to become members of his management team. Perhaps, too, he realized not just the scope of the challenge but the inadequate preparation that his leadership of the Emerson school provided him for so difficult a task.

That brings the district back to the place where it should have started: with a focused and sculpted national search for the right candidate with broad support on the School Board. That means coming up with a list of qualities a new superintendent should have and then approaching potential candidates who meet the standard. And the board needs help in identifying those candidates: from head hunters, from contacts within the education field and from any other likely source of candidates.

Specifically, if the board hasn’t already approached former State Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. for suggestions on where to look, it should do so immediately. King now holds a senior position in the U.S. Department of Education. If anyone this board knows is well connected, it is King, and over 3½ years, the former commissioner demonstrated an unshakable determination to bring the Buffalo School District up to some acceptable standard of performance. If he is willing to offer direction, it could be valuable, indeed.

The big challenge going forward will be for members of the board’s majority and minority blocs to cooperate in a search. That will require them to set aside anger, suspicion and frustration and, instead, to work collaboratively on behalf of the students they were elected to serve. That is important simply for its own sake, but urgent because there will be little chance otherwise of finding a qualified superintendent candidate who will want to serve here. Leading this district to success will be an enormously challenging task under the best of circumstances and all but impossible without the broad support of the School Board.

That has been an all-but-impossible task for this School Board. It has been utterly unable to get out of its own way, even with the future prospects of thousands of city students depending upon that.

Maybe that has changed, now. The board appears to be left without any choice but to conduct the search it should have started with, and that search will likely come up short unless the board finds a way around its own petulance. It’s time for members of good will to reach out to others they can work with in the majority and minority blocs. It’s the only way. This situation cannot continue, unless the board a) wants to continue misusing students and b) wants to encourage Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to push for mayoral control of the School Board.

The board should move quickly.