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Mayoral control not the answer to Buffalo schools’ problems

Helping some 30,000 Buffalo school kids should be motivation enough for warring factions of Buffalo’s School Board to unclench fists, exit foxholes and join hands. Or at least forge a few compromises.

Now there is another looming reason: Survival.

The push for mayoral takeover of schools, with the usual cast of Buffalo Club power brokers pulling levers behind the curtain, would – if successful – toss overboard the nine-member board. The mayor would – in one model – have the power to appoint a new School Board.

State legislators could vote within a month to hand the school reins to Byron Brown. It’s not likely, but one never knows in Albany.

At a glance, offering the district’s hand to a mayor who hasn’t given education much of a hand makes as much sense as letting a dropout teach class. Brown is like one of a legion of Buffalo kids who doesn’t show up for school. When it comes to school policies, reforms and ideas, he is conspicuously absent.

That may not matter. As my Buffalo News colleague Tiffany Lankes reported Friday, Brown might be little more than a conduit through whom business execs and others funnel their School Board choices. Power brokers long frustrated with Buffalo schools include M&T Bank’s Robert Wilmers and the Oishei Foundation’s Robert Gioia.

Previously they put their shoulders behind preferred board candidates, or commandeered the coming of ex-Superintendent James Williams and the exit last year of Pamela Brown. A presumably compliant mayor would give Wilmers and others not just board influence, but indirect appointment power. It’s no surprise that names floated for mayoral-control board seats include ex-CEOs John Koelmel and Alphonso O’Neill-White. Maybe we could move School Board meetings to the Buffalo Club.

Joining the push from another direction is Andrew Cuomo, the governor whose blow-it-up education mantra includes upstate mayors helming city schools. Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, who’s carrying the mayoral-control flag in Albany, is tight with Cuomo and Brown.

I’m not a huge fan of the current School Board. The all-white majority’s reform push is undermined by its unfamiliarity with tact, diplomacy and compromise. The all-black board minority embraces a stale status quo that doesn’t serve a legion of needy kids.

But all nine members were elected to office. Removing people’s choices in favor of semi-dictatorial control is anti-democratic.

The recent shrinkage of town boards and the county legislature came after voter referendums – not by the decree of state legislators. There’s a difference.

“We need to hear loudly and clearly from the community that they want to dissolve the board they voted in,” said Sean Ryan, the Democratic state assemblyman. “And I haven’t heard that.”

Beyond that, it’s not as if corporate power brokers have a pristine track record. The ego-driven Williams’ tenure was decidedly mixed.

The sharpening of CEO knives against Pamela Brown, soon after she’d unpacked her bags, was seen – rightly or not – as a rush to judgment in the black community.

The current board majority – including developer Carl Paladino and ex-Sabres executive Larry Quinn – was backed by the same corporate types who now push for their ouster through mayoral control.

The about-face predictably didn’t sit well with the hair-triggered Paladino, who in an email Friday blasted Wilmers and other “liberal elitists” who, if the mayoral push fails, will be revealed as “irrelevant as leaders in this community.”

Relevant or not, the top-down, we-know-best model – from years of a “silver bullet” development strategy, to misfires with public schools – has often failed this community. Jettisoning elected board members for a system that undermines voters and empowers CEOs brings its own set of problems.

Among them is the way the business community continually underestimates the difficulty of reshaping a district laden with state mandates, union contracts, racial politics and conflicting interests. Or fails to fully factor the crushing impact of socioeconomics in city school performance.

Quinn, Paladino and other “quick-fixers” found out that it isn’t as easy as they thought it would be. The CEO club might want to be careful what they wish for.