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Possible Buffalo superintendent candidates begin to emerge

One possible recruit is a heavy-hitter in education reform circles, with experience running the Rochester and Chicago school systems.

Another worked in Buffalo as a top administrator before going on to head a Virginia school system with about 4,500 students.

Two others are current Buffalo Public Schools administrators.

The search for a new Buffalo superintendent is on, and already members on both sides of the board’s ideological divide are collecting names and recruiting potential candidates.

But perhaps just as significant, the two factions may now find themselves on the same page when it comes to how they go about the search process. There are some indications that board members may be starting to see eye to eye on what will perhaps be the most crucial decision they make as an elected body.

With some members striving to find a new superintendent within the next few weeks, members on both sides of the typically-divided board acknowledge they are receiving names and starting to vet potential candidates.

“Since (Larry) Quinn came up with the resolution that was sort of along the same lines we were thinking, I thought we might come together and do this,” said Mary Ruth Kapsiak, a member of the board’s minority bloc. “That’s still my hope. I hate to see anyone come in when we’re divided.”

“I think it’s our every intention to work together,” said Board Member Jason McCarthy, part of the majority bloc. “Since this last resolution’s been passed and crafted, it’s my hope that we can all come together to chose the next superintendent.”

Whether the board’s traditional division would make it difficult to attract a candidate has long been a question looming over the school system. Some of the country’s savviest superintendents refuse to take the job without support from the full board upon hiring.

Buffalo board members’ setting their differences aside makes it more likely they will attract quality candidates.

Already, based on names circulating in the community, it appears the board may have some strong options to consider – despite a long-standing belief the district would not be able to recruit an outside candidate.

The names include Jean-Claude Brizard, a high-profile national leader with experience in Rochester and Chicago, and Joseph Melvin, a former Buffalo administrator who now oversees a district in Virginia.

School Board President James Sampson said he could not comment on any of the names, out of respect for the process the group agreed upon. Typically, in any district, it is not uncommon for search leaders to stay quiet about prospects until they identify finalists. Sampson did acknowledge the district has received six applications.

“I know people are talking to a lot of different folks and encouraging them to apply,” Sampson said. “Those names will remain confidential. I don’t think it’s helpful to start speculating on who is going to apply.”

“I think it’s encouraging if people of good stature are interested in applying,” he added.

Several board members have publicly expressed their plans to talk to education contacts to identify and recruit possible candidates.

“What this allows us to do is actively look for candidates, to truly research them and not just rely on what other people are saying,” McCarthy said. “It really puts us in the driver’s seat.”

Two members of the board minority bloc said they learned over the weekend that the majority has its eye on Brizard. With enough votes to make the decision, it would seem anyone recruited by the majority would be a front-runner, and Brizard’s track record matches the priorities the majority laid out when it took control in July.

In reform circles, Brizard is known as one of the relatively few educators with the skills and stomach to take on controversial reforms such as closing schools and holding teachers more accountable for their students’ performance. During his time in Rochester, Brizard closed schools with low standardized test scores, reassigned principals he deemed ineffective and advocated for a teacher evaluation system that held educators accountable for their students’ achievement.

His bold steps have put him on a national stage with some of the biggest names in education. But his style has also earned him criticism from those on the other side of education’s ideological divide, including teachers unions all over the country.

In 2011, the Rochester Teachers Association cast a vote of no confidence against his leadership. When working in Chicago, his proposals prompted the Chicago Teachers Union to go on strike in 2012. He left shortly thereafter through mutual agreement with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who has control of the school system. Brizard was superintendent in Rochester for about three years and in Chicago for 17 months.

Melvin worked as a community superintendent in Buffalo from 2007-10. During that time he supervised about two dozen schools.

He then went on to become superintendent of Essex County Public Schools in Virginia, then superintendent of Petersburg Public Schools, a small urban district north of Richmond. Prior to his education career, he worked in business.

Board minority-bloc member Theresa Harris-Tigg, a SUNY Buffalo State assistant professor, acknowledged she has been getting names through her professional circles.

The big uncertainty with the board’s recruitment approach is that there is no guarantee any of these – or other – referrals want the job.

“I don’t even know if these people are interested,” Harris-Tigg said. “That’s step one; if you’re interested, apply.”

The district posted the job last week on its website, and has made arrangements to post it on more than a dozen other state and national channels.

Meanwhile, insiders expect district candidates to resurface, including Associate Superintendent Will Keresztes and Grabiarz School of Excellence Principal Gregory Mott.

Mott, a Buffalo native, has built his career in the city school district. He has turned Grabiarz from one of the district’s most struggling schools into one of its most successful.

Keresztes served as interim superintendent for a month prior to the appointment of Interim Superintendent Donald A. Ogilvie last July. He had also unsuccessfully previously sought the interim superintendent position after Superintendent James A. Williams was effectively fired in 2011.

Keresztes has publicly released a school reform plan, which includes creating new schools, providing more building-level support to students and expanding online credit-recovery programs that help students who have fallen behind.