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New superintendent gets running start in his attempt to reboot troubled district

It’s a new school year today, and, judging from Kriner Cash’s running start, it’s going to be different from any start in memory. Buffalo’s new school superintendent has experience with troubled districts, he understands the moving parts of urban education and he is planning to have an impact. For the city’s sake, we hope he succeeds.

In a meeting Tuesday with The Buffalo News editorial board, Cash made clear that his approach will be bold, and it’s not about tinkering around the edges. In his own words, he is planning a “system reboot.” Few systems ever needed it more.

Cash is an experienced reformer, unlike either of his two immediate predecessors. Former Interim Superintendent Donald A. Ogilvie was a professional with a record of success at Erie I BOCES, but he hadn’t dealt with problems such as Buffalo’s. Neither had former Superintendent Pamela C. Brown. With his background and commitment to success, Cash has a better chance of turning this district around.

He also has tools that other superintendents did not. Under a law enacted this year, persistently failing schools can be placed into “receivership,” in which the receiver – that is, Cash – is vested with the authority to make contractual changes if honest labor negotiations fail to produce necessary reforms. That will be key in Buffalo, where the union culture is, as Cash already understands, “anachronistic.”

Indeed, under previous circumstances, it would have been difficult to hold out much hope for success at the bargaining table. For all the union’s talk about wanting a new contract, it has never seemed very serious about it. It’s a fair assumption that the union believes it is better off working under the terms of the pact that expired 11 years ago than making the concessions a new and educationally useful contract is sure to require. Now, the ground has shifted. New rules are in play.

Teachers may want the money that a new contract could provide and they have already expressed rising dissatisfaction with Philip Rumore, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation. While Rumore won re-election in May, it was with just 51.8 percent of the vote in a three-way contest. He may feel the need to take a different approach, a decision that could make him more – or possibly less – willing to negotiate seriously. Other than that, though, Rumore’s history offers little comfort for optimists.

Cash understands that hammering out a new teachers contract is an important part of his job.

He also wants to improve the performance of the district’s Central Office, which he tactfully described as “not effective.” In past years, that could have been a problem for him, as individual members of the School Board have pushed particular people for jobs. Indeed, Carl Paladino has made it plain he wants Cash to staff his cabinet with certain people, including Kevin J. Eberle, principal of Harvey Austin School 97.

Eberle may be a fine choice, but that is for Cash to decide. All School Board members are, presumably, committed to improving education in Buffalo, but if anything has been made clear over the past several years, it is that they don’t know how to do it.

That’s the point of hiring a superintendent, and the simple fact is that Cash is the only expert here. Certainly, he needs to listen to the ideas of members and to take direction from the board, itself, but he needs to implement his plan, not that of any individual. The board should make it a point to stay out of the way.

Cash has set an ambitious goal. In five years, he wants to reach a graduation rate of 100 percent and he wants 80 percent of students meeting state standards. It’s a huge stretch, but what is the point of aiming for 80 or 90 percent graduation? Who should he plan on leaving out?

Shoot for the stars; if you miss, you might still make it to the moon.