A special meeting of the Buffalo Board of Education got heated Wednesday night over how individual board members should discuss board business online and during interviews with the press.
The hour-and-a-half-long conversation, which pushed back scheduled presentations and was live-streamed by several community members on social media, was sparked by Board President Sharon Belton-Cottman’s recent comments during an interview on WUFO Power 96.5 in which she allegedly voiced her opposition to raises for top-level district administrative staff.
Belton-Cottman’s comments sparked an email chain among the school board about whether or not she had violated the board’s code of conduct by speaking out against a majority board vote. The board president was the only member to vote against the raises last month, as reported by The Buffalo News.
“We have to disagree to get ourselves to a better place,” said Dr. Ann Rivera, the board’s vice president of student achievement. “If we don’t ask difficult questions, if we don’t disagree, if we don’t push our knowledge of things further, we are not doing what we are supposed to do as board members. But again, it’s how we do it. We have to do it at the right places. We have to do it in public so people can see what our opinions are,” and, she added, “We can’t work together if we allow divisions to continue.”
Dr. Rivera co-authored an email with board Vice President of Executive Affairs Jennifer Mecozzi expressing concern about Belton-Cottman’s remarks after the interview in question. But Belton-Cottman, who had the support of about a dozen community members attending the meeting, said she was speaking in a personal capacity and that serving as board president doesn’t prohibit her from having a personal opinion.
“When I speak for the board, I will be clear that I’m speaking for the board. But when I speak for me and my constituents, I will, and as far as this code of conduct goes, I wrote it—I helped write it,” she said to cheers from the audience.
Central District Board Representative Paulette Woods also spoke strongly in Belton-Cottman’s defense, saying, “There will be no gag orders here.”
“The general public policy of this state—New York State—is to foster public awareness and understanding of governmental actions, and to encourage their participation therein,” Woods said. “The public has a right to know why any board member voted for or against an item.”
Member-at-Large Terrance Heard and others expressed frustration about the situation, which he described as “foolishness.”
“I’m not here for the bickering [and] the back-and-forth. I’m not here to babysit,” Heard said. “If it’s for the betterment of the kids, I’m all for it, I’m right there with it. And as a board, we need to step up and show that we’re together, that we’re working in unity and that we can move forward.”
One agenda item that did move forward Wednesday concerned Middle Early College High School, which has given students the opportunity to dual enroll in high school and a local college (SUNY Erie or SUNY Buffalo State) since 2004. It has graduation rates of over 80%, according to longtime Principal Susan Doyle, but the school has had three different locations since it opened.
That is now set to change, after a unanimous board approval for Superintendent Dr. Kriner Cash to enter into negotiations with SUNY Erie about leasing a building on the college’s city campus.
“I believe being on a college campus will really make our program stronger. It will give us the ability, we have a long waiting list to get into our school, but we have never had the room to grow,” Doyle told the board. “This way, more students in our community can have that opportunity of having college and high school at the same time, and after 17 years, we will have a permanent home.”
The district’s goal is to move Middle Early College to the new location in a former manufacturing building downtown as early as September 2020.
Wednesday’s meeting also included presentations about the district’s efforts to expand restorative practices, specifically its pilot program at PS #43 Lovejoy Discovery School, and a report from Superintendent Cash’s staff regarding the district’s 2018-2019 proficiency rates in English language arts (ELA) and math.