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Mayor Brown needs more ‘bucket’ in his attitude

I’ve always scoffed at the notion of statutorily booting incumbents from office, figuring elections make for ideal term limits while also allowing good officials to be retained.

But I’ve got to admit that watching President Obama, unfettered by another campaign, becoming more of the leader some supporters expected all along gives me second thoughts.

A recent NPR profile recalled the White House Correspondents’ dinner and Obama’s routine about whether he had a bucket list for his final couple of years. He said he had something “that rhymes with bucket list.”

That new attitude from a long-cautious president is apparent in the checklist of recent headline-generating actions and appearances. His response to criticism of candid comments or bold action on everything from racism in America and new ties with Cuba to pushing through new trade authority that riled his base? Bucket.

As the Buffalo Public Schools begin a new fiscal year with the same old governance structure and the same old problems, it’s hard not to contrast that with another cautious, buttoned-down leader. It’s hard not to wonder what might happen if Byron W. Brown had a little more bucket in him.

The demise, at least for this year, of a state bill giving the mayor control over Buffalo’s education system means city students in most struggling schools will return in September with little hope of radical change.

It’s probably no coincidence that when then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg fought for, and won, control over New York City’s schools, he enjoyed the freedom that came with that city’s two-term limit for the top job. (It was later extended to three terms, then reduced back to two.)

Being enormously wealthy also bought Bloomberg the luxury of independence. But so did not having to worry about repeated re-election. Instead, he was free to focus on actually doing something meaningful.

There is no guarantee mayoral control would work as well here as in New York City. But Brown’s failure to aggressively push to try something drastically different recalls the definition of insanity, above and beyond what one might think of any particular School Board member.

Combine that penchant for calculated safety with a campaign finance system that makes elected officials beholden to big-money funders – including powerful labor unions – and it’s little wonder politicians who want to stay in office are loath to go out on a public policy limb.

The result for Buffalo students is a divided, dithering board and another interim superintendent. While everyone wishes Darren Brown the best, he lacks the reputation that predecessor Donald Ogilvie brought to the temporary job. And even with his stature, Ogilvie lasted only a year under this board.

Meanwhile, taxpayers have forked over $490,000 – and counting – for a “distinguished educator” as overseer because the district can’t effectively govern itself.

All of which argues for a mayor whose city’s fate is inextricably linked to its school system to shed his inhibitions and fight for his policies, just as Bloomberg did and Obama is doing now.

I’m still not convinced that requires term limits. But it does require a change in attitude, and for Buffalo’s mayor to embrace his inner bucket.