Buffalo’s Next School Board: With all nine board seats on the ballot May 7, The Buffalo News is looking at critical issues that will face a new board in the often-troubled district. Today: District leadership.
Who will lead the Buffalo Public Schools in the coming years is one of the big questions looming over a big election.
The contract for Superintendent Kriner Cash expires in 2020, and he has expressed interest in staying put for a couple more years.
The Board of Education, too, has hinted at the need for continuity, particularly with signs of improvement in the district.
But there also is reluctance among current members to entertain a contract extension when this board is on its way out. All nine board seats are on the ballot May 7.
“It would be presumptuous of us to make a decision for a new board,” said Board Member Paulette Woods, who is seeking re-election in the Central District.
The timing of the election and superintendent's contract does create a level of uncertainty at the top, but there also seems to be strong support among candidates for Cash to stay.
“Absolutely,” said Larry Scott, a parent activist who is running for an at-large seat. “My preference would be at least three years. I think that would give us some time, as well, for a new Board of Education to start planning a succession plan.”
"I don't see why the superintendent wouldn't be extended," said Board Member Sharon Belton-Cottman, who is running for re-election in the Ferry District. "I've been through seven superintendents. I certainly don't want to keep playing that game over and over again."
“I don’t see a new board that does not renew his contract,” said Board Member Hope Jay, who is running for re-election in the North District.
Cash, who is in his fourth year as Buffalo superintendent, will earn $296,145 this year.
He told The Buffalo News he would be willing to sign up for a one- or two-year extension beyond 2020 to keep the district on track and help the new board find his successor.
“I’m not trying to go anywhere, because I like where I am,” he said.
Cash will give the new board a little time to get acclimated. But he also said he would like a decision on his future in Buffalo by early next school year.
“I’m going to give them to about September,” said Cash, 64. “But they’re going to have to make their decision, one way or another, as one of their first orders of business, and then I’ll let them know what I’m going to do.”
Cash said he wants to avoid being a lame duck superintendent for most of next school year while awaiting a board decision.
“And that’s just for the interest of my family,” Cash said. “What folks don’t understand about a superintendent is that it’s a two-year deal to exit and then transition.”
Since coming to Buffalo in 2015, Cash – the former superintendent of the Memphis City Schools – has provided some stability for a troubled urban district, where the superintendent’s office has been a revolving door in recent years.
He’s credited with charting a clear course for the Buffalo Public Schools with a multipronged approach for reform, dubbed the New Education Bargain. That has included a focus on smaller class sizes in the early grades, more options in the high schools to give kids a better chance to graduate, and opening schools after hours and on weekends to provide additional services for the neediest students and their families.
“Hopefully, he’ll want to stay and continue to implement the plan,” Woods said. “I believe everybody who is running will probably respect and support the Education Bargain. It’s making a difference. You can’t deny we’ve made an improvement in the school system.”
The number of city schools considered to be in good standing by the state has more than doubled to 37 during his tenure, while the number of those in jeopardy of being shut down has dropped from 25 to three. Critics, though, also question how much of that progress is due to changes in the state's accountability system for schools.
Buffalo’s graduation rate, meanwhile, has hovered around 64 percent the last three years. That’s better than the 48 percent from as recent as 2012, but still lower than the 70 percent Cash has set as a goal for the district.
“I am concerned about continuity and trajectory,” Cash said. “I really want everyone to have the attitude that we must continue to do this work. The bargain is a good framework, but it’s flexible enough that you could put additional work into it. There is always more to do.”
Last year, the School Board gave Cash an overall grade of 3.14 on a scale of 1 (needs improvement) to 4 (excellent). That was a little better than the previous year, but not as good as his first evaluation. He scored well last year for his emphasis on raising achievement and his relationship with the community, but less well when it came to communicating with the board.
Moving forward, Cottman would expect the new board to have more defined goals for the superintendent. She would like to see an improvement in the graduation rates and an overhaul of some internal operations, but said that's not a criticism of the job Cash has been doing.
A new School Board would be well served to keep him, said Park District Board Member Lou Petrucci.
“The Education Bargain has had positive results for the district,” said Petrucci, who is running for re-election. “Continuity will keep the Buffalo Public Schools on the right path.”
An extension also would ensure a smooth transition to the district's next leader, said Jack Kavanaugh, an at-large candidate.
"By and large, I think he's done a really good job," Kavanaugh said, "and I think a lot of that has to do with, not just his vision for the schools, but just having someone steady at the helm for a consistent amount of time."
Story topics: 2019 School Board Election