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Dysfunction is outgrowth of leadership

First came Buffalo’s state-appointed control board in 2003, because the city couldn’t manage itself. Two years later, a control board was appointed for Erie County because it couldn’t manage itself, either.

Now the state is threatening – promising? – outside receivers for nearly half of Buffalo’s public schools because the Board of Education is incapable of managing education.

All of which makes you wonder: What is it about this area that makes effective self-government a civics book chimera? Is it the grip of municipal unions? Elected officials pandering to those who give the most money? Or voters who don’t really want tough solutions and elect politicians who promise not to impose any?

Probably all of the above. After all, according to the State Comptroller’s Office, New York only has five control boards – and this is the only region with two of them.

Other observers, though, are not so down on leadership here and point to larger forces. “Buffalo was never more irresponsible than Rochester or Syracuse,” said Sam Magavern, co-director of the Partnership for the Public Good, a research and advocacy coalition.

Magavern contends that local problems began when 9/11 prompted the state to freeze aid while responding to New York City’s needs. Because Buffalo is the state’s second-largest city, it was hurt more than most. He also blames state and federal policies that favor suburbs over cities, and Buffalo’s poverty, which researches have long linked to educational underperformance.

Hamburg’s school leadership is nearly as dysfunctional, yet those kids do well because that community is not as impoverished, he points out, advocating a “holistic” approach that focuses on those tough issues instead of “the myth of failed leadership.”

Canisius College political science professor Michael Haselswerdt adds that it was not completely the fault of city leaders that Buffalo lost population. Like Magavern, he also points to poverty and segregation when it comes to education, and is “not sure we’re really worse at it than other places.”

“None of us know how to run these schools. It’s not an easy deal. Voters don’t have answers, and neither do people who sit on the boards,” he said, adding that being a business leader or having a constituency is no guarantee of knowing much about education.

Haselswerdt proposes the heretically sensible idea that schools not be governed democratically, but by professionals who are then held accountable. As Exhibit A, he points to Donald Ogilvie, Buffalo’s former interim superintendent, who by all accounts was a skilled educator, but who was hampered by a meddling board of elected non-experts.

But if we’re committed to elected government, at least it should be competitive – which Buffalo’s isn’t because the GOP abandoned the city.

“Competition tends to keep leaders on their toes,” said University at Buffalo political science professor James Campbell. “That seems to have broken down in Buffalo.”

While they come at it from different perspectives, they all agree on one thing as outside oversight looms for some two dozen city schools: There is no easy fix.

That means the least we can do is stop electing leaders who promise one.

Leadership matters, but not when it’s just a popularity contest.