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Despite upheaval, School Board’s focus needs to be educating Buffalo’s children

Voters in the Buffalo School District changed course with Tuesday’s elections, but fundamentally, the task remains the same: to ensure that Buffalo students receive an education that sets them up for productive, successful lives. That was, and remains, the test.

The current board majority – which is about to become the minority – made some progress on that front, though frequently in about as chaotic and rancorous a way as possible. Indeed, that excessively confrontational approach, practiced mainly by Park District Member Carl Paladino, may have helped convince voters that a course change was required.

Nevertheless, graduation rates have improved slightly and, after a painful search for a new superintendent, the board hired Kriner Cash to lead the district. It’s the first time in years that anyone could have confidence in the ability of a superintendent to produce long-term improvement in the severely underperforming district. Thus, the first job of the new majority, elected with the assistance of New York State United Teachers and the Buffalo Teachers Federation, is to ensure that Cash remains at his post.

All the new members also expressed their commitment to the district’s students, but now they have to show that they were serious. That means more than delivering a gift-wrapped contract to the BTF, which many observers fear is in the cards. The district’s teachers have been working under an expired contract since 2004, and they certainly deserve a new one. The question – and it’s an open one – is whether the new board will negotiate with the interests of students, parents and taxpayers in mind or if it is too much in the sway of the unions that helped its new members win their positions.

With the elections, the former 5-4 majority will likely be reduced to a 3-6 minority. Still, those members with a reformist mindset should remain in their seats. Paladino was just re-elected, though with not much of a margin against opponent Austin Harig, an 18-year-old high school senior, and with absentee ballots still to be counted. Members at large Patricia Pierce and Larry Quinn may be wondering what influence they can exert at this point, but possibilities remain.

Paulette Woods, newly elected in the Central District, was supported by the teachers union, but was clear about the need for the BTF to bargain honestly for a new contract, which she said needs to include paying a portion of health care benefits. She said she brings a manager’s approach to the job and likes the work Cash is doing as superintendent. That’s hopeful.

In the end, though, the board’s work has to be about delivering a challenging, high-quality education to Buffalo’s students. Teachers and taxpayers are important, of course, and they need their places at the table. But the board will fail if it serves only those constituencies and falls short of the critical need to serve the students for whom the district exists.

That will be the test and the way for voters to evaluate the board’s performance: What does a new teachers contract do to improve education? How do its budgeting priorities serve students?

The previous board majority – the one that hired Pamela Brown as superintendent – did a terrible job of that, hiring administrators who lacked the skills or certifications for their jobs, for example.

The new one must do better, not only than that ineffectual group, but the one that just saw its influence vanish. It won the confidence of voters on Tuesday, but without improving the lot of Buffalo’s students, it won’t retain it for long.