After the Buffalo School Board spent more than a year on failed efforts to recruit a superintendent, state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia has stepped in to find a new chief of city schools.
The fact that Elia, less than a month on the job, is recommending a candidate for Buffalo school superintendent reinforces that she will take an active role in trying to fix the Buffalo district.
Kriner Cash, former superintendent of the Memphis schools, will be in Buffalo on Tuesday to interview with the School Board for the position.
Elia’s involvement comes as the board continues to fracture and city school performance languishes.
Carl Paladino sent an email Thursday to colleagues on the School Board, calling for James Sampson’s resignation as president and continuing his lobbying to appoint Principal Kevin Eberle to a Cabinet-level position. Paladino also sent the email to both Elia and Cash. Elia did not responded to a Buffalo News request for comment. Cash declined to comment until he has spoken with the board.
“Despite the shortcoming of knowing zilch about the BPS, its people, problems and institutional history,” Paladino wrote. “I’m willing to hear Cash out only because he comes highly recommended and only if he is agreeable to the appointment of Eberle as operating Deputy and an immediate restructuring of the executive staff as guided by the Board majority.
“The idea of bringing in a black only to pacify the black minority on the Board is abhorrent to me. If he’s the best person for the job considering the unique problems facing the BPS then I’m good with it.”
Paladino’s email prompted members of the board minority bloc to call on Elia to remove him from office and hold the district harmless while they “work to correct damage” that occurred as a result of his actions.
It does not, however, appear that Paladino’s desire to link Eberle to Cash’s appointment – or to force Sampson out of the presidency – has support from his fellow board members. And Sampson said he has no intention of stepping down.
Although the email sounded aggressive and hostile, Paladino took a much calmer tone when speaking with a Buffalo News reporter Friday. He acknowledged the email was harsh, but said it comes from months of brewing tensions among the board majority and a sense that it isn’t getting anything done.
“That’s the result of an escalating dialogue that has gone on for months,” he said. “Yes, it is strong. It was weaker months ago. But right now the district is in total chaos. I’ve been there as a person very anxious to get something done.”
He even acknowledged there are things he likes about Cash.
“He’s a bull in a china shop,” Paladino said. “Which is good.”
Cash will be the sixth person officially interviewed for the job, and sources close to the process say board majority members have attempted to recruit several others, but have had no success.
Cash led the Memphis school district for five years, when he oversaw the merger of the district with the rest of Shelby County.
Prior to that, he served as chief of accountability in the Miami-Dade school system for four years, coinciding with Elia’s time in Hillsborough County. He also has worked as a superintendent in Martha’s Vineyard and as an associate dean at the Howard University School of Education.
Cash appears to share Elia’s reform agenda, and the two have presented together at a number of education conferences. Both also were recipients of grants to improve teacher effectiveness from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Although it may seen unusual for a state education commissioner to involve herself in a superintendent search, none of the five board members interviewed for this story seemed to have a problem with that – including Paladino.
“I look at Mrs. Elia as having made a suggestion,” Paladino said. “She’s not putting any pressure on us. She’s saying, ‘Hey, I know that you’ve been through a few people. You might want to try this guy.’”
Board member Jason McCarthy said he takes any recommendation by the state education commissioner seriously, especially given Elia’s local roots. He said the district needs to maintain good relationships with the state.
“I think we have a state commissioner who has shown interest and a desire to see this district improve,” he said. “I would very much like to work with her. And if she comes forward with a recommendation for superintendent with a proven track record, certainly my ears are open, and I’m willing to try it, as long as it’s a person seriously committed to reforming this district.”
Board member Theresa Harris-Tigg said the board first learned of Cash’s interest when Sampson emailed the group notifying them of Elia’s recommendation and asking if they wanted to interview him.
“James Sampson shared with us that he got a call from the commissioner, and the commissioner made this recommendation,” Harris-Tigg said. “I was baffled. I was like, ‘Interesting. I’ve never seen that happen before.’ ”
Still, Harris-Tigg said it seemed reasonable to hear what Cash had to say and worried that Paladino’s email might scare him off.
“Who would do this? Who would send this ugliness to an applicant coming here to apply?” she said.
“It’s so problematic that he’s trying to ruin our search process,” she added. “He’s trying to put forth a candidate, internally, who is not prepared on any level to be superintendent.”
The superintendent search has been dogged with problems from the beginning.
Sources familiar with the situation say members of the board majority received recommendations for potential candidates – including Elia before she was appointed as commissioner – 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. It was early May before majority members agreed to conduct a search and attempted to recruit candidates, but by then their effort was out of sync with most district hiring cycles.
“If you want the best person, you go out and steal them from someplace else,” he said. “But in our place we are so far upside down it’s been difficult.”
Paladino is an unquestionable influence on the board – and in the city – but this time the plan laid out in his email clashes directly with someone who has more authority and power over the district.
Elia wasted no time traveling to Buffalo to meet with board members and warned them that if they do not get their act together improving the city’s schools, she will use her authority to do so.
“Rest assured,” she told them in a meeting in Buffalo, “that if the schools do not show demonstrable improvement, someone will come in under my authority and fix those schools.”
For much more on this story, including emails, letters and Cash’s resume, please visit the School Zone blog at www.buffalonews.com/schoolzone
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