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Brown Sticks Around

If nothing else, last week’s Buffalo Board of Education meeting demonstrated board member Carl Paladino’s large and growing box-office value. It’s difficult to imagine any other member or school district staffer who could inspire such unusual numbers of the mostly general public—120-130 of them—to turn out and sit through a couple hours of primarily routine-sounding board business for an opportunity to express their displeasure. It was, of course, his pending resolution to dismiss the African-American Superintendent Pamela Brown that drew so many to Common Council chambers, where the board had providentially moved the meeting in anticipation of the crowd’s size.

The resolution failed, when it was brought up less than halfway through the seven-hour meeting, but by only one vote, 5-4. By that time, nearly 25 speakers had almost exclusively devoted their three-plus minutes of time before the mic to delivering often vehement, sometimes impassioned defenses of Brown, and in some cases, heated challenges and condemnations of Paladino and his motion. Many of the objections and much of the rancor had an unmistakable racial tenor. Dwayne Kelley, from the BUILD organization, referred to the Klu Klux Klan. Long-time community activist Samuel Herbert took a place a scant few feet from Paladino—who swiveled in his chair to face him—and said, “I’m here as a black man. And I resent any white man belittling…any black woman.” County legislature chairwoman Betty Jean Grant faced Paladino and said, “I’m not going to demonize anybody, but they know who they are.”

Throughout, Paladino sat impassively, almost stoically, and when he spoke in favor of his motion at the end of the public commentary period—which board president Barbara Seals Nevergold had moved forward from its position in the published agenda for obvious reasons—his tone was mild. “I don’t bring this motion lightly,” he said. But, he went on, “it’s evident [Brown] doesn’t have managerial experience,” citing repeated unsuccessful student-transfer plan applications to the state and an inadequately explained and executed administration reorganization scheme. “The problems we have are systemic,” Paladino said.

At-large member John Licata sounded saddened and echoed Paladino when he said his support of the motion “was not done lightly.” And he referred to just-completed comments by Brown, in which she said she came to a district whose problems were even more serious than she expected. Licata responded, “This is the first time I’ve seen such [an eloquent] display” from the superintendent. But he voted with the four-member minority.

The vote itself appeared to emphasize the volatile animosity affecting the controversy: four white men (Paladino, Licata, Jason McCarthy, and James Sampson) versus five African-American women. Member Florence Johnson looked in Paladino’s direction when she said, “One of my colleagues had as his goal [during the election campaign] to get rid” of the superintendent. Paladino was the object of virtually all the ill-feeling and rebukes, despite being joined by three other members in the vote. It was his resolution, but the others bought into it. It’s doubtless easier to make him the personification of the school system’s troubles (given his fraught racial affairs history), and allegedly unfair critiques/complaints leveled against it.

One observer who has long experience working with the board and school administrators said that the four men thought they had either one or two other votes, with East member Theresa Harris-Trigg acting as the key vote. He thinks Harris-Trigg switched early last week, leaving Paladino and his three colleagues short of a majority.

Buffalo Teachers Federation president Phil Rumore thinks the system and the city were saved some considerable troubles and disruption that would have resulted from Brown’s dismissal. “Can you imagine what would have happened if she’d been dismissed?” he rhetorically asked during a phone interview this week. Racial and political conflicts would have increased sharply if the board had voted against Brown, he said.

Rumore doesn’t agree with everything Brown is doing, he said. “Does she have some managerial problems? Sure.” But not all the important problems have been created by the superintendent and her staff, he contends. A substantial amount of her problems are created or exacerbated by the state, Rumore believes, particularly by education commissioner John King Jr., whose office made reaching agreement on the teacher evaluation agreement more difficult than it already was through unclear, inconsistent, and changing advice and directives. He accuses the state of incompetently, or deliberately, complicating the district’s response to the 2,110 student applications to transfer from designated failing schools and making a foul-up of the closing of Pinnacle Charter School in August, leaving Buffalo to scramble to accommodate the school’s students. The state also made reaching an educational partner organization agreement with Johns Hopkins University to run East and Lafayette high schools needlessly difficult, in his view.

Moreover, he suspects some of the impetus for firing Brown comes from Albany. “There’s an agenda for getting rid of the superintendent” in the state capital and the offices of the Buffalo News, Rumore said, although he noted he couldn’t’ specify the reasons for this attitude he discerns. Another person well placed to comment on school matters agrees, saying, “King wants her gone next year.”

A majority, 6-2, went against her proposal to hire Mayor Byron Brown’s communications flack, Lori Schultz, for a new chief of communications position. The superintendent said almost all urban districts have more than the single person handling public relations that Buffalo now has. Both Rochester and Syracuse have had at least two for years. But she probably erred in pushing the idea forward: It was at least an inattention to appearances in the face of the district’s budget constraints and cutbacks.

Then there is the effort of the District Parents Coordinating Council to have the state reject once again the system’s plans to allow the transfer by February of only about 300 of the 2,110 students who have made application. Sam Radford, DPCC president, said his group will ask the state to appoint a special master for the district if it persists in pursuing what he regards as a violation of the law permitting any student enrolled for two years in a failing school to transfer to a better-rated one.

And then there is the matter of Mary Guinn, an on-site consultant with a salary higher than the superintendent’s and, who, Paladino says, is making unauthorized financial and administrative decisions. “Trust me,” he told Artvoice this week. “Mary Guinn will be coming up again.”

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