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

As the Buffalo School Board election draws near  we continue to bring you each of the candidates who will appear on next Tuesday's ballot. WBFO, WNED-TV and The Buffalo News teamed to record interviews with the candidates vying for three-at-large-seats. WBFO'S Eileen Buckley highlights the candidates to help inform Buffalo voters as part of our Focus on Education reporting.

"I think there’s a lot of different agendas that are occurring within the Buffalo School system and also on the school board," said Adrian Harris.  Harris is a long-time Buffalo resident with an education background.  He works as a teacher's aide in the Lancaster Central School District.  

Harris said as a parent, educator and homeowner, he could deliver the right mix to the school board in an attempt to bring everyone together for 'a common vision'.

"I think I have a vested interest in all aspects of each stakeholders responsibility. We need to bring all those individuals together. We need to bring teachers and administrators together and parents and the community together to really work together. That's what I'm trying to foster and really try to promote. And I think it is a long time coming and people really need to focus on working in that direction," said Harris.

Harris ran unsuccessfully last year for the Park District seat.  He is not a supporter of schools Superintendent Pamela Brown.  In a Buffalo News survey -- Harris believes she should be terminated. Buffalo News education reporter Sandra Tan joined in questioning Harris about his lack of confidence in Brown's leadership.

"You have never been a fan of Superintended Pamela Brown. When you ran for election last year you had said you had thought she should be fired then, and that's still your position. What makes you think that she is not fit to serve as leader of the district?”, asked Tan. 

"Her actions don't promote that common vision that incorporates all stakeholders.  I think she really feels that it is just her job to sit on top and really dictate orders below and in education; I don't think that's a viable alternative o r means of really moving the district forward. It might be good in a board room -- a business setting -- but when you have all these different variables coming together that need to perform and really move the district forward and improve academic achievement, it's just not a successful way of administrating," said Harris.

Harris said  the district is failing to engage parents, but also places that responsibility on the teachers.  Sharing Harris's passion as a city resident to improve Buffalo schools is John Licata. 

Licata is an attorney at the Erie County Water Authority.  Licata is the incumbent candidate in this school board race.

"The largest issue facing the district is not graduating a majority of students, and that's the primary purpose of the district and we are not succeeding," said Licata.

Licata says resolving the graduation rate would clear up a number of district troubles and improve the quality of schools.  He has been serving on the board for the past five years.  Buffalo News education reporter Deidre Williams pointed to the fact that Licata initially supported the hiring of Superintendent Brown, but now wants her removed.

“You now believe that she should be terminated. Why the change?”, asked Williams.  

"Over the last two years I think we have seen more of a fragmentation of our efforts in education.  We see parents who feel they are being left out, antagonized, their school is being closed without having a a forum to discuss that.  There was an effort by some community business leaders to entice Superintendent Brown to leave," said Licata.

Buffalo News reporter Williams pressed Licata to why he supported Brown as the school district leader.

"Why do you think she should be terminated now, even though you voted to bring her on board", asked Williams.

"I brought her on board because if you look at her resume we're talking someone who went to the Harvard Urban Superintendent Program...we have a bilingual superintendent, and I think there were many assets on paper that never came off the page," said Licata.

Licata is a major supporter for a proposed Medical Campus High School -- but Williams questioned why Licata wants a quick turnaround -- after his firs asking for a delay to review the project.

"As time went on we won one of 24 grants of $3.9 million so that's a lot of reasons to go forward with the medical school, but also hen it looked like Martin Luther King School was not going to be permitted to reopen and it would need to close, that's even closer to the medical campus than School 8 is," noted Licata.

Licata’s children attend criterion based schools, City Honors and Olmsted. While he would like to see expansion of these types of schools,  he doesn't believe those programs work well for all students.  However, he suggests being creative and developing a school based on the strengths of a community or neighborhood.  But opponent Sergio Rodriguez believes Criterion-based schools should be maintained not expanded.

The former Buffalo Mayoral candidate is now seeking one of the three at-large seats.

"I understand that the education system is the single biggest issue that impacts the city in a very holistically way," said Rodriguez.

During his campaign for mayor, Rodriguez had proposed mayoral control of the school district, but he changed his mind. Rodriguez has also flipped flopped on his support for Superintendent Brown.  Buffalo News education reporter Mary Pasiak asked Rodriguez why he now believes she should be terminated.

"You, at one point, had supporter the superintendent and since then, you've changed your position on that can you explain what accounts for your change of heart on that," asked Pasiak.

"Yes I did," noted Rodriguez.  "During the first year the superintendent was on board she had a lot of criticism and she was basically, without being given an opportunity to make decisions, she was basically being blamed for everything.  So I feel it was more like a scapegoat thing. So I felt like the first year was more of a learning curve. We had to give her an opportunity to learn the process, to learn the school system before we throw her under the bus, which I felt was being done.  Now over the past year, it is very different, especially recently, in the past few months, we've seen the process in how she makes decisions, I'm not all that impressed, I'm not happy with the decisions she's made."

Rodriguez said a lack of communication between the district and parent s is having a big impact and suggests the district get parents involved early on in some of the decision making. He's also big supporter of the Parent Portal. 

But Rodriguez does see the Portal as helping to improve student attendance.

"One of the ways we can address the attendance issue is with truant officers," noted Rodriguez.

Rodriguez failed to file his campaign disclosure reports on time, claiming his campaign crew was unaware of the requirements. 

Friday on WBFO's Morning Edition we will bring you our final installment of the candidates. You will hear from Stephen Bucchilli and Gizelle Stokes.  Then, Friday evening  you can watch "Schools at a Crossroads: Interviews with Buffalo School Board Candidates" starting at 8'o'clock on WNED-TV.