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Applicants for top Buffalo school job are from near and far

The candidates for Buffalo’s next school superintendent come from all over the country, including a few Southern states and others along the Eastern Seaboard.

Some familiar names from within the district also have formally applied, with Associate Superintendent Will Keresztes, Harvey Austin School Principal Kevin J. Eberle and Grabiarz School of Excellence Principal Gregory D. Mott among the applicants.

The first phase of the School Board’s search for Buffalo’s next superintendent ended with Friday’s midnight deadline for filing applications.

Now, board members are faced with one of their most important decisions.

“We want someone who is best for this community, at this point in time,” School Board President James M. Sampson said.

As of Saturday, 20 people had applied for the position, with candidates coming from a wide range of states, including Maryland, Virginia, Alabama and Louisiana.

Board members will now have to weigh the value of bringing in an outsider with experience in another community against hiring someone from within to overhaul a chronically struggling school system.

District staff spent the weekend grouping candidates based on those who meet the job qualifications and those who do not. As many as half of the external candidates may not meet the requirements, such as having New York State certification or the type of experience the board is seeking, according to sources familiar with the process.

Board members this week will receive packets that include all of the candidates’ cover letters and résumés. They will then narrow the field to two or three finalists to interview, and decide whether to present them to the community.

The often-divided board will make its decision amid mixed feelings in the public, with speakers at a community forum Thursday night having been divided on whether to hire internally or externally.

Those who wanted an internal candidate said someone with experience in the city schools will have a better understanding of the district’s problems. Those who advocated for a broader search said candidates with experience in other communities could bring fresh ideas to Buffalo.

Board members have run the gamut throughout the process to find a replacement for Donald A. Ogilvie, who will leave at the end of the month.

Members of the minority bloc have consistently pushed for a national search, saying that does not preclude local candidates from applying. They argued that the board should cast a wide net and allow any local candidates to rise above the competition.

Although some members of the board majority originally advocated for a statewide or national search, they then shifted to recruit a principal from within the district, and for weeks seemed intent on hiring James G. Weimer Jr., principal of Emerson School of Hospitality. When Weimer indicated that he did not want to come in as the majority’s handpicked selection, they agreed with those in the minority bloc to conduct a national search.

“I’ve always been very supportive of someone who came from this community and knew this community,” said board member Jason M. McCarthy. “But when we were pushing that, the public protested. Now, after listening to the public and the people, we cast a wider net.”

Several board members indicated that they planned to identify and recruit a high-profile reform leader for the job, but it is not clear whether they enticed any such candidates.

Although many in the community familiar with the process believed board members tried to recruit Jean-Claude Brizard for the job, the former Rochester and Chicago superintendent said he did not apply.

There have been many factors working against the process, not the least of which is the timing of the search, which fell out of sync with most school district hiring cycles. Prospects who may have been available a few months ago are no longer on the market.

Since the board started its search, potential candidate MaryEllen Elia was named the New York State’s education commissioner.

And Shaun Nelms, whose name has been pushed by top education leaders for years, took a job leading a turnaround effort with the University of Rochester.

Some also believe that the political tensions on the board and general dysfunction in the district turned off top candidates.

“Unless some fairly high-profile reform educator is identified through a nominating process, everything I’ve heard about it makes me think strong consideration would be given to someone locally,” Ogilvie said.

Several board members, however, say that if they do not believe that any of the candidates are right for the job, they will look to appoint an interim superintendent while conducting a lengthier search.

Meanwhile, those on the inside are hoping that board members settle on a local option.

Keresztes, who declined to comment about his application, served as interim superintendent for a month prior to the appointment of Ogilvie last July. He had also unsuccessfully sought the interim superintendent position after James A. Williams was effectively fired as superintendent 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.

Eberle, the Harvey Austin principal, has been a school administrator in Western New York for two decades, including 11 years in the Buffalo Public Schools. He founded the district’s International Preparatory School. Prior to working in education, he worked in law enforcement.

“Overall, I think with my experience in the city I know the needs, and I’m passionate about the kids here,” he said. “I felt like it was my duty and obligation to apply for the position.”

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

News Staff Reporter Sandra Tan contributed to this report. email: tlankes@buffnews.com