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School Board majority regroups from stumbles

At this time last year, a new Buffalo School Board majority needed to find a permanent superintendent, approve turnaround plans for some of its most struggling schools and figure out how to create more student openings at those in good standing.

A year later, those same challenges remain.

“I wouldn’t give us a very high grade,” said Larry Quinn, one of the two new board members elected last year. “When I look at what we set out to do, we haven’t accomplished it.”

Other members of the board majority also acknowledge that they did not make the kind of sweeping changes or dramatic progress they laid out last year, citing a litany of reasons from lacking district leadership to their own failure to more swiftly push for the most important reforms.

Part of the problem started with their appointment of interim Superintendent Donald A. Ogilvie, who quickly made it clear he was not fully on board with the majority’s agenda.

Majority members then faced pushback to their plans to entice more charter schools to open in the city, and the effort spent fighting that battle came at the cost of recruiting someone to take over after Ogilvie’s departure.

Now, they enter their second year in control facing many of the same challenges as in their first year – this time with a new interim superintendent, Darren J. Brown – amid repeated calls for a change in governance that could ultimately dissolve the Board of Education.

“As I’ve said many times in the past, I am personally ashamed of the ineffectiveness of the BOE majority over the past year,” majority member Carl P. Paladino wrote in an email to his colleagues.

Nevertheless, members of the majority say they remain committed to implementing the vision they laid out a year ago, as well as a few other priorities they share with the minority bloc, including improved attendance, lower class sizes and early literacy.

Meanwhile, those on both sides of the debate about how to best improve the Buffalo schools agree that if the majority was successful at one thing, it was sparking a new conversation about education in the city.

But whether that’s a good thing depends on whom you ask, and underscores the divide on school issues here and across the country.

“I think the only thing that they have accomplished is creating deep divisions within the community, and also among the teachers, administrators and employees,” said Buffalo Teachers Federation President Philip Rumore. “It’s been mostly negativity that’s come out of it. I don’t see anything positive.”

Not everyone is so negative.

“From where we were, to where we’re going, it’s obviously a couple steps,” said Jason A. Zwara, executive director of Buffalo ReformEd, which supports charter schools.

“But I think it’s starting to go in the right direction. It’s like a battleship. You might turn 2 degrees and it might not seem like a lot, but it puts you moving in a whole other direction.”

Ogilvie, new majority out of sync

The majority’s ultimate success largely lies in the hands of whomever the board picks as its new superintendent.

And many believe that Ogilvie, the last person they handpicked for the job, slowed their progress.

“If you look at what the most important thing the board does, it’s hire a superintendent,” Quinn said. “We struck out on that. Don’s leadership was nonexistent. Looking back, he made it clear in September he didn’t have the stomach for the job. We should have fired him.”

Ogilvie stepped into a politically volatile situation, drawing criticism for agreeing to take the job without any search, public vetting or even input from members of the minority bloc, who questioned his willingness to take the job without meeting nearly half of his new bosses. They predicted he would be a yes man pushing through the majority’s agenda.

It quickly became evident, however, that Ogilvie did not agree with many of the tenets of the majority’s vision, particularly the one encouraging more charter schools. In September, he suggested he would stay only a year, not the two years originally envisioned.

Another key element of the conflict between Ogilvie and the majority was his failure to undertake a mass restructuring of the Central Office, replacing officials deemed ineffective with people more capable.

Although Ogilvie called for a reorganization in a plan he wrote years ago as an outside consultant, he said that once he became interim superintendent, it became difficult to determine who was part of the district’s problem, and who might be part of the solution. He said he decided to work with the team he had – including some people who were not in favor with the board majority – and sought to develop their talent.

In the months leading up to his June 30 departure, he drew further criticism from the board majority when he pushed to renew his Cabinet members’ contracts.

“I think that, in a lot of ways, they had the right ideas,” Samuel L. Radford III, president of the District Parent Coordinating Council, said, referring to the majority. “They were ahead of the administration’s ability to implement what their vision was. Ogilvie just wasn’t the right person to aggressively pursue the vision they had.”

According to some district observers, part of the issue was that the new majority bit off more than it could chew in a relatively short time.

“That was probably the biggest frustration is you had this big, ambitious plan that didn’t quite line up with the leadership time frame,” Zwara said.

Others, however, said members of the board majority overstepped their role as policymakers and tried to get too involved in what should be decisions made by the superintendent. Some of Ogilvie’s biggest supporters on the board turned out to be those in the minority bloc who had originally raised questions about his appointment.

“In my opinion, Don’s hands were tied for a while,” said Mary Ruth Kapsiak, a member of the minority bloc. “He saw what he needed to do as superintendent, but he couldn’t do it.”

Still looking for a superintendent

Despite the frustrations with Ogilvie, members of the board majority were slow to seek a permanent replacement, in part because some members say they were distracted by a state directive to come up with turnaround plans for four of the district’s most struggling schools. That process ultimately evolved into a public debate about whether to allow charters to use district buildings.

Ogilvie devised a process that allowed teams of teachers from each of the schools to develop proposals for how to revamp the programs. Charter schools were also invited to apply to use the buildings.

But after months of deliberations and debate, the board approved a compromise plan that did little more than shut out charters – for now – and slate the district schools for closure, with a promise to continue working on plans for how to use those buildings.

While that process played out, efforts to find a replacement for Ogilvie fell by the wayside.

Sources familiar with the situation say members of the board majority received recommendations for potential candidates but never pursued them.

Rather, they set their sights on hiring Emerson School of Hospitality Principal James G. Weimer Jr., devising a process to bring him in as a deputy to ultimately step in as superintendent.

That plan fell apart, however, when Weimer bowed out amid criticism from community members and those in the minority bloc, prompting majority members to agree to conduct a national search.

Although board majority members said they intended to identify and recruit potential prospects, sources say that people whose names surfaced – former Rochester administrators Jean-Claude Brizard and Shaun C. Nelms, and former state deputy education commissioner Kenneth G. Slentz – are not interested.

So, for the time being, Brown has been elevated to interim superintendent from his position as associate superintendent for human resources, and the board is now interviewing candidates who did apply for the job, though it’s unclear whether any current applicant could get a majority of votes.

Shared sentiment on class sizes

In what might seem like a year marked by chaos, the School Board can claim some successes, the most significant of which came with support from both sides of the often divided board.

Ogilvie and the board majority were able to improve the district’s relationship with the state Education Department.

Board members also unanimously agreed to hire an outside attorney to assist in long-stalled negotiations with the BTF and settled on priorities for those talks.

“It’s been a year of some significant accomplishments, but also significant disappointments,” said board President James M. Sampson. “If you look at the budget, we made an impact in that we’re not in a crisis this year. But I think we’ve been unable to quickly and immediately establish more seats in high-performing schools so parents have a choice.”

The board did approve plans to expand the Emerson School of Hospitality and create a Newcomers Academy for international students, and has laid the groundwork to expand other popular and successful programs.

“Those are the programs we need to support and need to drive what we do,” said board majority bloc member Jason M. McCarthy. “We fight and we squabble over stuff that may or may not work when there’s real issues to deal with. We’re fighting over the wrong things.”

“You sit there week after week and you see people fighting over the wrong things,” Kapsiak agreed. “It’s sad.”

The board recently came together to dramatically lower class sizes in the primary grades and enhance the focus on reading skills in early grades, something that members on both sides agree could have a significant impact where it matters most – in the classroom.

The shared sentiment over class sizes may signal the group has more common goals than are evident in their often contentious public meetings.

That it took nearly a year to get to that point underscores the fact there are no easy answers to fixing the school system.

“When I decided to run for the board, people really questioned my sanity,” said majority bloc member Patricia A. Pierce, who also joined the board last year. “But when I go to a school, I see the kids in the day-to-day school setting. They’re smiling. There are teachers who are working hard to reach them. It’s such an uplifting experience.”

“Quite frankly, there is no panacea that I have been enlightened about that will completely change things,” Pierce added. “It’s a myriad of things we need to do that will help lead to higher achievement for our students.”