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Wilmers, the ghost of superintendent searches past

As the School Board on Wednesday debated which consultant to hire to find the next superintendent, there was one person looming larger than life over the whole conversation -- but nobody seemed to want to mention his name.

Bob Wilmers.

In the event that "Wilmers" and "superintendent search" don't ring a bell for you: Back in 2004, the board took the M&T Bank executive up on an offer to pay for a national superintendent search.

"The power of the purse dictates the actions," School Board member Ralph Hernandez said at the time, speaking out in opposition to the idea (although he ended up voting in favor of the deal, along with every other board member).

Wilmers2What did Wilmers' money get him?

Three seats on the seven-member search committee, for one thing. Wilmers and then-board president Florence Johnson mutually agreed upon Muriel Howard, who was the Buffalo State College president; Dan Boscarino, a v.p. at M&T; and Ken Peterson, president of Signal Construction Co.

And what did that search yield?

James Williams.

There were those in the community who didn't like that arrangement from the get go. And then there were others who came around to disapproval a few years later, after Williams was forced out last summer.

Williams, of course, was generally seen as the guy the business community brought in to break the unions. Although, after some very public nastiness directed at Phil Rumore and Crystal Barton, Williams left the unions in pretty much the same shape he found them -- and with exactly the same contracts.

Throughout his tenure, by various accounts I've heard, Williams and Wilmers remained tight, with Wilmers remaining his staunchest defender up until the end. But you sure didn't hear Wilmers making any public proclamations toward the end of that administration about his pride over the district's success during the Williams years.

Well, I haven't heard so much as a whisper to indicate that Wilmers was thinking about underwriting this superintendent search.

But another outside group has, in fact, offered to offset the cost.

It's a little more complicated this time around.

Say Yes to Education, the group that in December announced its partnership with the district, submitted a proposal to conduct the superintendent search, in conjunction with Cascade Consulting. And they offered it at a cut rate: the district pays $30,000, and Say Yes picks up all the other costs -- which are likely to equal, if not, exceed, the amount the district pays.

The situation seemed more than just a little too familiar to some board members -- although none of them mentioned Wilmers by name. But the thought of an outside group having some degree of control over the search clearly did not sit well with some.

Ralph Hernandez voiced concerns in general with Say Yes, noting that the district is about to undergo a financial audit spurred by Say Yes, but that the board still does not even have a written agreement outlining its relationship with the group.

Interim Superintendent Amber Dixon defended the audit, saying no public money was being spent on it. And she said that Say Yes wasn't doing the audit -- Schoolhouse Partners is.

Here's a snippet of the exchange:

Hernandez: We haven't seen anything in writing about our relationship to Say Yes in the first place. We don't even know what the scopes of those audits are.

Dixon: It's five years of our financials. It's not Say Yes.

Hernandez: They're doing it on behalf of Say Yes.

Dixon: They're doing it on behalf of the children of Buffalo and Say Yes.

Hernandez: We don't even have a relationship with this organization yet.

His concerns extended to the superintendent search. Hiring Say Yes to do the search, he said, presents a conflict of interest -- something Mary Ruth Kapsiak agreed with (although she ended up voting in support of Say Yes doing the search).

Barbara Seals Nevergold shared reservations about Say Yes doing the search, saying she was uncomfortable having Say Yes leaders Gene Chasin and Mary Anne Schmitt Carey involved in the search. She also did not like the idea of Say Yes offsetting the cost of the search.

"They have offered to pay a substantial amount toward the cost of the search," Nevergold said. "If that doesn't create a conflict of interest, it creates an appearance of a conflict of interest."

During a break in the meeting, she alluded to Wilmers' involvement in the last search -- although never specifically named him -- and said that experience still looms in the minds of Buffalonians.

"We live in a community that has a lot of distrust," she told me.

Nevergold and Hernandez voted against hiring Say Yes and Cascade. The motion passed, 7-2.

Rosalyn Taylor, the v.p. for executive affairs, invited board members to sit in on contract negotiations with the consultants and make their concerns known. Nevergold told me she plans to push to have the district cover the entire cost of the search. The board budgeted $100,000 for the search. It's not clear exactly how much the search will cost, once all the travel and other incidental expenses are totalled, but it seems that $70,000 to $80,000 would be in the ballpark.

The majority of the board spoke in favor of Say Yes conducting the search, saying Buffalo should hire a superintendent who's on board with the group's plans for the district.

Board President Lou Petrucci said he had talked to the president of the school board in Syracuse, where Say Yes conducted a search last year. That board president spoke highly of having Say Yes involved, Petrucci said.

"I would remind everyone, it's our rules," he added. "If you don't want Say Yes involved, that's fine. We can make that very clear. If we don't want to take a dime from them, we don't have to take a dime from them. It is up to us. We set the rules. We can be very deliberate, very distinct."

We should find out soon whether the board decides to accept the Say Yes proposal as is -- or alters it to have the district pick up the entire tab.

- Mary Pasciak

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About School Zone

Denise Jewell Gee

Denise Jewell Gee

Denise Jewell Gee joined The Buffalo News in 2007 and currently covers education and suburban schools. She also writes a column for the City & Region section and previously covered government in Erie County and Niagara Falls. Gee graduated from Boston University with degrees in journalism and political science.

@denisejewellgee |

Tiffany Lankes

Tiffany Lankes

Tiffany Lankes joined The Buffalo News in 2013 and primarily covers the Buffalo Public Schools. She has written about education since 2003 at newspapers in Florida and New York. In 2008, she was a nominated finalist for The Pulitzer Prize. Lankes is an Amherst native and graduate of Sacred Heart Academy and Syracuse University. She started her journalism career writing for the News’ NeXt section.

@TiffanyLankes |

Sandra Tan

Sandra Tan

Sandra Tan has been a cityside reporter for The Buffalo News since 2000 and currently covers the Buffalo Public Schools beat. She previously covered the Williamsville school district and was a full-time education reporter for five years prior to joining The News. She graduated from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.

@BNschoolzone |

Deidre Williams

Deidre Williams

Deidre Williams began working for The Buffalo News in 1999 and currently covers Buffalo Public Schools. She formerly was a suburban reporter on the Northtowns beat and has been a cityside reporter covering communities since 2004. Williams has a mass communications degree from Towson University.

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