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

Apr 29, 2014

The Buffalo Public School District is under pressure to improve failing schools and boost graduation rates and it’s a contentious time for school leadership. There are more than a dozen candidates vying for three-at-large school board seats. 

WBFO, WNED-TV and The Buffalo News teamed to record interviews with those who will appear on the May 6 ballot. All this week, WBFO's Eileen Buckley highlights the candidates to help inform city of Buffalo voters as part of our Focus on Education reporting.

"It seems like you know not to single anybody out, but it seems like everybody is in it for themselves and not thinking about the students and not putting the students first," said Stephon Wright.

Wright is one of the youngest school board candidates.  The 21-year-old Wright currently attends Erie Community College and is a product of Buffalo Schools.  He attended Schools 71 and 74 for elementary and graduated from Emerson School of Hospitality.  But he already has some experience in dealing with the Board of Education.  Wright is the former student representative to the school board.  Wright is very concerned about divided school board.                     

"Hopefully the community -- seeing that a student -- a college student or young man that's trying to represent the community is trying to bring everyone together to just show them that we still to work together. Even if I don't make it at the end of the election -- we feel strongly and we feel like we will win -- but even if something happens where we don't win --  that still should  have our community rise and say if Stephon felt the need to do it at 20-years old, we need to open our eyes and see what we are missing out on," said Wright.

Despite a division among school board members and mounting pressure against Superintendent Pamela Brown's leadership, Wright believes in giving Brown more time to lead the district.  Buffalo News education reporter Tiffany Lankes questions Wright about his support for Brown.

"You indicated, on the Buffalo News survey, you would retain Superintendent Brown, or at least give her a little more time to prove herself. Could you at least elaborate on that position," asked Lankis.

"Well to tell you the truth, I would give her a little bit more time because Rome wasn't built in one day," said Wright. "There has been a couple of things that made me questions her judgment."

But Wright said he would prefer a superintendent that's from Buffalo. He said a native of our community would understand our needs much better.  One of the incumbents seeking reelection has been  standing by the decisions of the superintendent.

"Unfortunately there are a number of people who believe the leadership needs to change. I do not," said   school board president Barbara Seals Nevergold. 

Seals Nevergold said under the current leadership, she feels progress has been made in the district, claiming there is "very concrete evidence." 

"The district, as a whole, has had serious issues with the achievement rate of students, the graduation rate, absenteeism and suspension rates, and we have been tackling all of those things the last two years, and so I feel confident that we have made some progress. We are moving progressively forward," said Seals Nevergold.

Buffalo News education reporter Deidre Williams joined in the questioning of  Seals Nevergold support for Superintendent Brown.

"Yet the superintendent has been under fire for hiring uncertified administrators, among other things. How has that affected your opinion of her?", asked Williams.

"Well you know, no one is perfect and I think Dr. Brown would even agree with that," said Seals Nevergold  "I know that there had been some issues and some problems that haven't been addressed as well as I would like to have them addressed, at the same time I believe that Dr. Brown has worked very hard."

Seals Nevergold has also been under fire and criticized for her own leadership.  School board member Carl Paladino has made several attempts to remove her from the board.  

But with all these on-going board conflicts -- citizens say the district is not meeting student needs and addressing the many failing schools.  

Larry Quinn, former managing partner of the Buffalo Sabres. is also running for one the three-at large seats.  Quinn believes the biggest issue is those failing city schools.

"So with that goes a whole myriad of things," said Quinn. "But having choice for parents. They can choose a school and not be forced to send their child to a failing school."

Again Buffalo News reporter Lankes joined in the questioning -- asking why Quinn would like to see superintendent Brown terminated.

"You've also indicated that Superintendent Brown should be fired. Could you elaborate on why you think that?," asked Lankes.

"We have a very difficult problem. You know, turning around a district like this is complex. It requires the best leadership. From what I've been able to see -- she really hasn't demonstrated much leadership at all," said Quinn. "I'm not trying to target her as the problem with the school district...she's clearly not part of the solution."

But Quinn has been off the Buffalo landscape for some time -- since leaving the Sabres when they were purchased  in 2011.   There is speculation that Quinn -- if elected -- would be the deciding vote to remove the superintendent.

"Carl Paladino has put a light on the problems these school districts that was never there before. But it's not why I'm running.  I'm running because after he asked me...after he asked me, I started engaging with parents and students. What I found was disempowerment," said Quinn.

There is also speculation that if election, Quinn would not fill out his full five-year term. Quinn said he would. 

Wednesday will continue our candidates interviews.  You will hear from Patricia Pierce and Ralph Hernandez.