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Education profiles series and interviewing Pamela Brown

Today's lengthy profile on Buffalo Public Schools Superintendent Pamela Brown was originally conceived months ago as the first in a series of three detailed profiles of the new power players in the Buffalo school district. Aside from Brown, I also wanted to profile developer and board member Carl Paladino and parent advocate Sam Radford.

Those profiles are now complete and will run as part of a longer, ongoing series of education profiles over the coming weeks. (Many of you may have read the profile on Regent Robert Bennett last Sunday, for instance, done by my colleague Denise Gee.)

For the profiles on Brown, Paladino and Radford, I wanted to give readers a more complete view of these individuals as human beings shaped and motivated by their own life experiences. I also wanted to convey to readers why these people should matter to us, put their accomplishments and shortcomings into context, and show how they're viewed by others.

Frequently, the goal of reporting is to take something complicated and make it sound simple. But nothing about Pamela Brown, Carl Paladino or Sam Radford is simple. They didn't achieved their level of influence and prominence, or grow their ambition and convictions, by taking short cuts in life.

These people have amazing stories. They also have emotions and personality quirks like the rest of us. They may be controversial and divisive and they certainly aren't loved by all, but on a fundamental level, they have a connection to us as people. 

In regard to the profile on Supt. Brown specifically, I spent roughly three hours of one-on-one time with her, just as I did Paladino and Radford. Many people who've interacted with Brown would say she's a hard woman to get to know. She carries a calm, outward, professional air devoid of the kind of raw, emotional intensity that marks Paladino and Radford.

But in my conversations with Brown (the first I've had with her without a staff bystander present), I was impressed by the openness and ease with which she spoke about her past.

She recalled the drive from Mississippi to Los Angeles as a child and marveling at the freeway underpasses that looked like rivers carrying cars instead of water. She talked about the tough transition her older siblings had making it through school, and the dire financial straights faced by her family. She was also equally and surprisingly open about her son Julian, recounting in great detail for me the last full day she spent with him in Charlotte. That sort of painful candor deserves admiration and respect.

Of course, a profile isn't a one-sided story about how a person views herself. How other people view Brown is equally important, and not everyone views Brown with favor. If they did, she wouldn't be one vote away from losing her job.

These profiles aren't puff pieces. My editors and I have spent many days working to make them as complete, accurate and fair as possible, while also giving a brutally honest assessment of each person's image, based on the dozens of people we've spoken to for these stories.

A few assessment of Brown that didn't make the story:

From Board President Barbara Nevergold: "She has more intestinal fortitude than she has been given credit for. She’s taken a lot of heat, much more than any recent leader... People are looking for her to be direct, to fight back, show that she won’t be bullied. The best response to critics is success."

From Brown's former boss in Charlotte-Mecklenberg, James Pughsley: "She is a very businesslike person. She cuts to the core of what she needs to do. Initially, people may have a wait-and-see attitude about her, but given the time and opportunity, they will definitely see a difference."

Also from Pughsley: "The question is, how do you define success? I would say to you, Pam defines success as student achievement. You have to lay a foundation to turn a situation around before you can demonstrate or show that student achievement. Most organizations fail for lack of good execution. Pam can execute. It would only be fair to give anyone more time."

From board member James Sampson: "I don’t want this woman to fail. If she fails, we all fail. [But] I haven’t seen anything that suggests her way of leading is going to change over the short term."

From District-Parent Coordinating Council President Sam Radford: "Being a principal is very different than being a superintendent. Being the person who does it is different than being the person who supervises the person who does it. As arrogant as [former Supt. James] Williams was, at the end of the day, you felt confident that he was in charge. You had confidence that he was going to do what he said."

From Oishei Foundation President Robert Gioia: "Everyone in this community wants her to succeed. Nothing would please us more than for us to be wrong. If we felt that more time would allow her to be more collaborative in the community, we would agree with what you’re saying. She has not shown the ability to do that, and if anything, she’s gone into a corner even more."

Also from Gioia: "My suggestion is, show this community that you are willing to partner with the many stakeholders who want to help you and your enterprise to succeed. We cannot continue business as usual."

-- Sandra Tan

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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.

@DeidreWilliamsB |