Schools at a Crossroads: Interviews with Buffalo School Board Candidates Part I

Apr 28, 2014

It is a critical time for Buffalo Public Schools as leadership remains under tough criticism. This year’s school board election has attracted significant interest for three at-large seats. As part of our Focus on Education reporting, WBFO, WNED-TV and The Buffalo News teamed up to record interviews with more than a dozen candidates running for the May 6 election. All this week, WBFO's Eileen Buckley is highlighting the candidates to help inform city voters.

"We need to have greater cultural intelligence -- cultural sensitivity training within the classroom dynamic --everything is governed by what happens between the student and teacher in my estimation," said Samuel Davis, Buffalo resident, criminal defense attorney and former teacher. 

Davis said he believes the classroom dynamic is the biggest issue in the district.  Davis wants to see city school teachers quip to deal with the social and emotional health as well as the welfare of a child's education. Davis is a parent.  He has a child attending kindergarten at School 81.  When it comes to Buffalo School leadership, Davis believes schools superintendent Pamela Brown should be retained.

"It's not even about her any more.  I believe personally she should be retained because I would like to see what fruit will come from the labor she has put forth so far," said Davis. "I don't feel, as a voter, I've had the opportunity to see her execute her plan."

Buffalo News education reporter Deidre Williams joined me in interviewing Davis, questioning his supporters in his run for the school board.

"You have close ties to the majority on the school board, for instance, Florence Johnson, who has been a school board member for more than 20-years and is not seeking reelection has pretty much has handpicked you.  If elected, who do you think you will align yourself in terms of that majority on that board?",  asked Williams.

"My ultimate goal is to make sure that I'm accessible to everyone on the board," said Davis.

Parents are frustrated with the District's performance and the many failing city schools.  Only about a dozen of the city's 50-schools are considered in good standing.  

Wendy Mistretta, who serves as a executive committee member of the District Parent Coordinating Council. is also seeking one of the three-at large seats.  Mistretta said she believes "inequitable access" to high quality programs for students is a big issue the District faces.  

"The fact that we have some programs that are doing very well and meeting the needs of students, and we have a lot of schools that are not up to the same standards," said Mistretta.  "We have a lot of community partners and assets in the district, so I really believe we have all the tools already at our disposal."

Mistretta ran unsuccessfully for the school board last year.  She has a doctorate in higher education and served as a past facilitator at the International School 45.  Buffalo News reporter education reporter Sandra Tan also joined the interviewed asking about Mistretta's disappointment in Superintendent Brown's leadership.

"Now you think the superintendent, Pamela Brown, should be fired. You didn't always feel this way. When you ran for office last year, I think you said things were headed in the right direction.  What has led to this change of heart?", asked Tan.

"Unfortunately the strategic plan process didn't end as well as I would have liked. She did not follow her own guidelines for community input. But the big issue is really the stumbling blocks -- the brick walls put in the place of parents in terms of participation and decisions that led us to ask for intervention from state Ed," said Mistretta. 
Mistretta's children attend Buffalo Schools.  One at City Honors and one at International School 45.  Mistretta says she serves as the co-chair of the Multi-Lingual Education Advisory Committee. Her concerns with criterion-based schools is the separation of students.

"I cannot accept that we have just 50 or 100 four year olds in the city of Buffalo who would benefit from a gifted and talent program," noted Mistretta. I think we really have to have programs in every school in the district."
Mistretta continues working to improve parent engagement in the district and creation of a plan by the DCCP.

"Very basic starting with homeroom representatives who work in collaboration with teachers to talk with all the other parents in that classroom," said Mistretta. 

But it is not just the parents who are worried about the future of Buffalo city schools. Former leader of Buffalo's FBI office are among those candidates who will appear on the May 6 ballot.  

Bernie Tolbert, a former Buffalo mayoral candidate, believes lack of a governance structure is preventing the district from surpassing the dysfunction to moving forward improving education.

"Govern how we act, how we make decisions and what decisions we make, and we need to ensure we are constantly using that structure as a guide," said Tolbert. "So some of the issues we've had to react to in an ad hoc manner -- we won't have to, we will be able to move forward -- whether it is hiring people, whether its determining what our goals are going to be -- we have something in place that helps us to do that."

Tolbert does believe it is time to consider new leadership. Buffalo News education reporter Tiffany Lankes asked Tolbert if Superintendent Brown should be fired.

"You haven't taken a very firm position on whether Superintendent Pamela Brown should be fired or retained.  If you won the board and it was put tonight -- how would you vote?," asked Lankes.

"I would suggest we terminate the superintendent, because I've talked to a lot of people, there has clearly been a loss of public confidence," said Tolbert.  "I'm concerned we won't be able to move from where we are at," said Tolbert.     

Tolbert ran into some confusion when went to file his campaign finance information. He filed it with the Board of Elections  instead of and not the school board.   

"There was nothing nefarious, no subterfuge," said Tolbert.  "I filed every one of my mayoral filings on time."

Tolbert ran unsuccessfully in 2013 for mayor, but he doesn't see running for a school board seat as a change in his politics. 

"I wouldn't call it a flip flop," said Tolbert "When I ran for mayor my two important issues -- were education and crime." 

As an expert in law enforcement, Tolbert is also concerned about the safety of city schools. Tolbert said teachers tell him they don't feel safe.

Tuesday morning on WBFO you will hear from three more candidates: Stephon Wright, Larry Quinn and Barbara Seals Nevergold. Watch Friday at 8 p.m. when WNED/WBFO and The Buffalo News team to bring you all the candidates appearing on the ballot in a special program called "Schools at Crossroads: Interviews with Buffalo School Board Candidates."