Many voters in the City of Buffalo see the crisis in public education as the top issue facing the city. Concerns raised by the state education commissioner, the governor and local stakeholders have only added to the speculation regarding future school leadership.
But when it comes the idea of a Buffalo mayor taking control of the beleaguered Buffalo school district, a majority of voters are of the same opinion: It’s a bad idea.
More than half of Democratic voters surveyed before the mayoral primary – 52 percent – said they oppose the mayor being in control of Buffalo schools, according to the Siena College poll commissioned by The Buffalo News and WGRZ. Only 36 percent supported the it.
Many local education activists and experts say that has a lot to do with the fact that Mayor Byron Brown has, until now, taken a hands-off position regarding the problems facing city schools.
“People have elected the Board of Education to do a job, regardless of whether they think the board has done a good job or a bad job,” said Thomas Ramming, a clinical associate education professor at the University at Buffalo and former Grand Island superintendent. “The mayor, up until this point, has not taken an active role or an active interest in the Buffalo school district.”
More survey respondents were opposed to the idea of mayoral control over Buffalo schools regardless of whether they supported Brown or Democratic challenger Bernie Tolbert.
That statistic is interesting given that the survey also had more voters listing education as the “single most important” issue in the mayor’s race. Despite the dissatisfaction with the city education system, many feel the mayor isn’t the person to fix the problems.
“Mayoral control, in itself, is not the solution all schools need,” said Jason Zwara, executive director of Buffalo ReformED.
He contrasted Mayor Brown’s approach to the much more aggressive position taken by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg regarding city schools.
“The reason it works in places like New York, is because that mayor is really committed to the idea in New York,” Zwara said. “He took the lead in it. I think it speaks more to leadership... It’s a concept that would only work if the person who would assume that control would make that a top priority.”
He added, “Hopefully, one thing this election cycle will show is education is an issue that can’t be avoided, no matter who is mayor. Whoever is elected mayor needs to be more involved.”
Brian Trzeciak, the local education organizer for Citizen Action and Alliance for Quality Education, said he doesn’t think the poll results are a reflection the mayor, but rather the concept.
“I think what it comes down to is education is profundly important, and to put it in the hands of one person, who is supposed to be running a city, is a bad idea,” he said. The mayor “has other things to be concerned about. Not to say he shouldn’t play a role in education – he should.”
Sam Radford, president of the District Parent Coordinating Council, said he understand why so many people are reluctant to embrace a mayoral control model, even though the DPCC is not opposed to such a concept.
It’s because Brown has spent so much time talking about his legal limitations when it comes to his authority over the school district.
“At this point, up until now, he has stated that is not his legal responsibility, so I think people are used to hearing that position,” Radford said.
That puts him at a disadvantage after a spring and summer in which everyone from outspoken board member Carl Paladino to New York Education Commissioner John King and even Gov. Cuomo have strongly weighed in on the Buffalo school district’s troubles, he said.
While Brown has not confronted the toughest issues facing the district, his for support of the transformative Say Yes to Education program, and his support of the DPCC, are still valuable, he said.
He added that parents are more desperate for a change in district governance than other voters who
don’t have children in the school system.
That may be the reason why there’s such a sharp disparity, in terms of race, when it comes to support for the mayoral model.
While 61 percent of whites said they oppose a mayoral takeover, 49 percent of African-American voters do support a mayoral takeover. Only 38 percent of black survey respondents said they were opposed.
African-American children comprise more than half of the student enrollment in Buffalo City Schools.
Radford and others agreed that the mayor’s race has shown is that the leader of the city can no look at struggling city schools as a sideline problem.
“It’s important, when it comes to education, that the mayor does what he can,” Radford said. “The question isn’t, what can’t be done? The question is, what can be done?”