Sharon Belton-Cottman has earned a reputation for being outspoken in her tenure on the Buffalo Board of Education. She and Carl Paladino were frequent sparring partners during a more contentious era for the board.
The newly constituted board last week elected Belton-Cottman board president, succeeding Barbara Seals Nevergold, who did not seek re-election. Now her challenge is to use her strong personality to keep the board focused on the task of improving education outcomes for Buffalo schoolchildren, while honing the diplomatic skills needed to handle disputes within the board.
She is confident that she is up to the task. Count us as willing to be convinced.
“I worked hard for the past eight years to make this district into the one that it is evolving into,” she said after being elected by an 8-1 vote. “I rightfully deserve this seat; I earned it.”
Board meetings were rancorous affairs four years ago, with frequent disputes between voting blocs, with Paladino on one side and Belton-Cottman on another. Board members were suing each other, running up the district’s legal costs. At one 2015 meeting, Paladino gave an explanation for why legal costs were soaring and Belton-Cottman replied, “That’s so stupid. That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”
She also was behind the drive for the board to remove Paladino, who had made racist remarks about Barack and Michelle Obama in Artvoice. State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia ousted Paladino from the board in August 2017 for revealing confidential information from board negotiations with the Buffalo Teachers Federation.
No one is singing “Kumbaya” at School Board meetings today, but there are genuine signs of civility breaking out.
Lou Petrucci was runner-up in the vote for board president, a position Petrucci occupied for a year as part of his previous board tenure from 2007 to 2013. He was appointed to fill a vacancy in the Park District and won re-election in May. After last week’s vote, Petrucci was the first person to congratulate Belton-Cottman.
After Petrucci’s appointment to the seat in 2018, Belton-Cottman had nothing but praise for him. She called him a “gentleman” and said he is “respectful of other people.”
The board last month agreed with Superintendent Kriner Cash on a new contract that will keep him here through August 2021. That gives the School District a sense of stability that was sorely lacking before Cash arrived in 2015.
The School Board, with four new elected members joining five incumbents, and with a new leadership team, is hitting the reset button. There are concerns, given the disproportionate influence of the Buffalo Teachers Federation on the election results, but that doesn’t change the crucial fact that thousands of city students need them to succeed.