Charter school proponents appear to be prepared to use any means necessary to force through the creation of as many new charter schools in the City of Buffalo as possible. Nothing could be more important to this Republican-inspired movement than to obtain a willing ally in the office of Buffalo’s superintendent of schools.

After Buffalo Schools Superintendent Marion Canedo announced that she would step down, the need for a replacement for the post was obvious. Behind the scenes, however, political strategies were being planned. Alt has investigated Heidrick & Struggles, the executive search firm that is responsible for recommending her replacement and found that the firm’s close ties with the charter school movement raise questions about whether it will be able to be objective in its selection process.

Overcoming Last School Year’s Political Defeat The increasingly partisan nature of American politics was, of course, well reflected locally in this spring’s school board election. The stakes were high as charter school proponents sought a takeover of the school board. The push to create as many new charter schools as possible has the additional benefit (for charter advocates) of taking funds available to traditional public schools. Eventually, a tipping point may be reached in which public education in Buffalo will become private, for-profit education with public funding.

The jury on charter schools, at least in the City of Buffalo, is still out. The radical charter school supporters, represented by Chris Jacobs, did not carry a majority. While several of the new school board members were not opposed to charter schools, they were elected on promises of moderation and a commitment to improve public education, first and foremost.

Identifying and isolating weak points in the opposition is something that charter school radicals have proven adept at, though. New school board member Janique Curry found herself so overwhelmed by lobbyists that she chose to abstain from voting on a moratorium on new charter schools in the district. In the meantime, the school board voted in favor of several new charters in its Sept. 22 meeting. The additional funding requirements of these new charters will put greater financial pressure on Buffalo’s public school system.

Charter School Lessons

One of the great ironies of the charter school battle currently being waged against public education is that Buffalo’s school system experienced real reform under former Superintendent Eugene Reville. Buffalo’s creation of the magnet school system was admired throughout the country. Funding problems short-circuited these successes, however.

In the charter school world, though, the problem isn’t lack of funding; it’s the fact that private individuals and corporations don’t control the public monies that go into public education. The system needs to be privatized, as it was in California. The following story from the Sept.17 edition of The New York Times gives us one lesson about what can result from this sort of “funding reform.”

“The disintegration of the California Charter Academy, the largest chain of publicly financed but privately run charter schools to slide into insolvency, offers a sobering picture of what can follow. Thousands of parents were forced into a last-minute search for alternate schools, and some are still looking; many teachers remain jobless; and students' academic records are at risk in abandoned school sites across California. Investigators are sifting through records, seeking causes of the disaster, which has raised new questions about how charter schools are regulated.

“ ‘Until the Charter Academy went into its tailspin, few people predicted that these crashes could be so bloody, but this has been a catastrophe for many people,’ said Bruce Fuller, a professor of education at the University of California, Berkeley. ‘The critics of market-oriented reforms warned of risks with the philosophy of let-the-buyer-beware, but in this case, buyers were just totally hung out to dry.’ ” “Caveat Emptor” (a Latin phrase meaning “let the buyer be ware”) is a concept with which taxpayers in Buffalo might want to familiarize themselves as charter schools continue to sprout up like mushrooms, and the district seeks a new superintendent.

School Superintendent History 101: Dirty Politics Pays

After the unsatisfying result at the polls, the need to find a suitable replacement for the pliable, yet well-liked Canedo became increasingly important. It became so important, in fact, that M&T Bank CEO (and charter school advocate) Bob Wilmers took the unusual and somewhat suspicious step of offering to pay up to $100,000 of the new superintendent’s yearly salary. Predictable arguments in favor of Wilmers’ largess were trotted out in the local media. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. A bigger salary will attract a better candidate. Etc.

One need only look back on the bitter fight to remove former Buffalo School Superintendent James Harris to realize how politically significant the position of superintendent in Buffalo really is. Harris’ opponents dropped an artificial funding crisis was on his Harris. The Buffalo News took the unprecedented step of running leaked excerpts of his personnel file on the front page, top of the fold Sunday edition. The fact that several people in the Board of Education disliked Harris was all the evidence that was necessary to turn public opinion against him. The movement to remove him, we were all assured, was not racist. Furthermore, people who suspected a racial element in this character assassination must be “playing the race card themselves.”

Behind the scenes, what was at stake in the Harris crisis was control over the Joint School Construction Authority’s bonding. Harris, prior to his dismissal, was reportedly leaning toward Morgan Stanley. His opponents favored Salomon Smith Barney. Guess who wound up with the bonding contract? Maybe the most important color in this conflict was green, after all.

The “Struggles” for Superintendent: Making Buffalo School “Market” safe for the GOP?

So now that the search for a new CEO-type superintendent is underway, who has been charged with conducting the search? That task has been entrusted to Heidrick and Struggles, an executive search firm with close ties to the charter school movement. The nominating and board governance committee chairman for Heidrick and Struggles, Richard Beattie is also chairman of the board and founder of New Visions For Public Schools, a not-for-profit group that promotes charter schools.

The following is from www.newvisions.org, the website for Beattie’s group: “The (New York State) Board of Education requested that New Visions formally address the need to assist such schools (new charters) in recognition of New Visions' experience and expertise in this field. The Charter School Assistance Center will provide resources that will combine New Visions' decade of experience with additional research, making critical information and technical assistance services available to new school leaders, and others embarking on the road to creating, converting, and managing charter schools.”

Beattie’s devotion to the charter school movement raises questions about whether his firm’s search team will be independent and seek out the best candidate, regardless of his or her position on charter schools.

Heidrick & Struggles board member Robert E. Knowling, Jr., is also chairman of the New York City Leadership Academy, a not-for-profit program that helps train new public school principals and is funded by the Broad Foundation, another organization advocating charter schools.

Heidrick & Struggles’ energy and industry advisor Les Csorba is one of the founders of the right-wing attack group, Accuracy in Academia, served in the George H. W. Bush administration and was involved in Southern Baptist Convention coup that created a schism in that religion along political lines. The Southern Baptists basically excommunicated ex-President Jimmy Carter for being a Democrat.

Are this search firm’s ties to Republican organizations and causes something that should concern the parents of Buffalo school?

Philadelphia Story: The Search Team Responds

Nat Sutton and Ken Kring are members of the Heidrick & Struggles search team. Sutton returned our call and stated that he could make no comment on the search itself, since it is just getting underway. He dismissed the notion that Beattie’s involvement in the charter school movement would have any bearing on the outcome of his firm’s search. “We’re looking for the best qualified person for the job, and that’s it,” he said.

He cited his firm’s experience and professionalism as an executive search firm as being the only factors involved. “We’ve been contracted to search for the best candidate, but it will be up to the school board to decide whether to hire that person or not,” Sutton said.

Sutton said that his firm has conducted other school district personnel searches, particularly in Philadelphia. By changing the title of superintendent to “CEO,” the school reform commission in Philadelphia, led by political appointee James Nevels, practically guaranteed that Philadelphia would get a business-friendly, charter school proponent. The executive eventually selected for that job, Paul Vallas, has, to almost no one’s surprise, been a proponent of charter schools. In short, the example of Heidrick & Struggles’ search in Philadelphia does little to prove its independence from the charter school movement.

Conclusion: The Need to Articulate a Positive Alternative

Clearly, it is not enough for charter school critics to stand on the sidelines if they hope to foil the right-wing juggernaut that the charter school movement has become at its leadership level.

Aside from attempting to put out the fires that have already been created by privatizers, such as Chris Jacobs and Control Board Czar Bob Wilmers, supporters of public education must do more to get a positive message out about how poor school performance can be turned around in Buffalo, without the “creative destruction” preached by the right-wing radicals.

In the upcoming search for superintendent, moderates on the school board must articulate the need for a superintendent who can carry on the legacy of Eugene Reville, while being wary of those candidates bearing MBAs and sporting red suspenders.

In addition, other board members are associated with the defense industry (Bechtel and Lockheed Martin). News & Commentary

By John McMahon

The new school year always brings with it a certain bittersweetness, particularly if you’re in a school district that has become a political football, such as the City of Buffalo. While suburban districts enjoy a smooth transition into autumn, with well-funded sports programs and extracurricular activities, under-funded districts, such as Buffalo, experience whole new chapters of political intrigue.