At a time of great division within the Buffalo Public Schools, community members appear torn themselves about who should be the next superintendent.
Some of those who spoke at a Thursday evening forum to tell the School Board what it should look for in the district’s next leader said the group should seek out someone from within the district.
Others, however, said the board should scour the country for a high-powered leader with proven success, with several pointing to a former reform-oriented Miami-Dade superintendent as the model for the ideal candidate.
Amid that ideological divide, however, nearly all of the speakers agreed on one thing: Buffalo’s next superintendent needs to come ready and equipped to help bridge the deep divides that exist among students, board members and city residents.
“When I go through Buffalo, I see how divided Buffalo is,” said Eve Shippens, a teacher, parent and city resident. “It’s divided on race. It’s divided on class. We have a very divided district representing a very divided city. We need someone who can come in here and work with everybody.”
That was the overwhelming sentiment expressed by the three dozen community members who turned out for the board’s forum to solicit feedback on the search for a new superintendent. Although only about a dozen spoke, the rest showed their agreement with applause and nods of approval.
The forum was a chance for members of the public to have a say on the qualifications board members should consider in their search to replace interim Superintendent Donald A. Ogilvie, who will be done at the end of the month.
The district also has been soliciting comments from the public on its website.
“I assure you that I, and all of my colleagues, will take your comments very seriously,” board member Barbara Seals Nevergold told the crowd. “I think it’s very important that we continue to ask for public comment, whether that is in person or in writing.”
The forum comes weeks after board members came to an agreement to conduct a targeted national search for the district’s next leader. Several board members indicated there are plans to reach out through various professional networks to identify and recruit potential candidates.
The board posted the position May 14 in a number of local and national publications.
A number of speakers used the forum as an opportunity to express concerns about the district’s overarching issues, including the division on the board and the looming prospect of mayoral control of the schools.
“We want someone that’s qualified to run a district that’s in chaos the way it is now,” said community activist Keith Jones.
Those who wanted an internal candidate said someone with experience in the city schools will have a better understanding of the issues the district is facing.
Those who advocated for a broader search said candidates with experience in other places could bring fresh ideas to Buffalo.
Applications for the post are due Friday, and district staff will spend the weekend compiling résumés and cover letters, grouping them by whether or not an applicant is qualified for the position.
Board members then will review those materials next week, narrowing the field to two or three finalists. They also will decide whether to introduce those candidates to the community in another forum.
Human Resources Administrator Darren Brown said that as of Thursday afternoon, the district had received 14 applications from all over the country, including states such as Maryland, Virginia and Massachusetts.
Some board members have said they want to wrap up the process by the end of the month.
A number of speakers, however, expressed concerns with the timeline, and whether a quick turnaround would provide enough opportunities for members of the community to weigh in on the candidate.
School Board President James Sampson, one of five board members who attended the forum, reassured them that the board will not rush to judgment in order to have a candidate by the time Ogilvie leaves office.
If necessary, the board will look to appoint another interim superintendent.
“We may have someone by July 1, we may not have someone by July 1,” Sampson said. “If we do not have qualified candidates, we will repost.”
Board members Theresa Harris-Tigg, Mary Ruth Kapsiak and Patricia Pierce were at the forum along with Sampson and Seals Nevergold.
All five board members shared the hope that this process – and the candidate who emerges – might help build bridges both on the board and in the community.
“We would like a superintendent who will have the support of the whole board,” Sampson said. “Not just a few members.”