School & District Management

Businessman Aids Buffalo Search for Chief

October 26, 2004 4 min read
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A vote by the Buffalo, N.Y., school board to allow a local business leader to help pay for the district’s superintendent search and supplement the new chief’s salary is drawing criticism from some circles.

The board voted 8-0 on Oct. 13 to join forces on the search with Robert G. Wilmers, the chairman of the Buffalo-based M&T Bank. As part of the agreement, Mr. Wilmers has helped appoint three of the seven members of the search committee.

Mr. Wilmers is active in the school district. His bank’s foundation has contributed as much as $10 million in time, funding, and in-kind services in recent years to help improve a K-8 campus in one of Buffalo’s poorest areas.

But the local teachers’ union and outside observers say the school board’s strategy raises questions about the businessman’s influence over the 43,000-student school system. The move also could set a precedent for superintendent searches in other cities.

President Philip Rumore of the Buffalo Teachers Federation said last week that he doesn’t question Mr. Wilmers’ good intentions, but disagrees with his role in the search.

“I really don’t believe you should be able to buy influence like that,” Mr. Rumore said.

He added that he plans to ask lawyers for the 3,500-member union, a National Education Association affiliate, whether legal action should be taken to preserve the school board’s powers over the search committee and to question whether a private donor can help pay for a public official’s hiring and subsequent salary.

School board members defended their move as a step toward improving the financially struggling Buffalo district.

“The district needs the help, given the financial situation of public education nationally,” said Denise Hanlon, the school board’s vice president and the chairwoman of the search committee.

Ms. Hanlon said that the board and the search committee would make decisions independent of Mr. Wilmers, despite his part in the process.

She noted, however, that the state-appointed control board that oversees the school district’s finances—on which Mr. Wilmers sits—must give final approval of the board’s hiring decision and the new superintendent’s pay package.

Ms. Hanlon said she wants a strong leader who can build on the improvements under former Superintendent Marion Cañedo, who recently retired. Buffalo’s interim superintendent, Yvonne Hargrave, is not seeking the permanent post.

Cautionary Note

Mr. Wilmers responded to criticism by saying in a written statement that he had no interest in controlling school affairs in Buffalo. His interest, he added, is only in recruiting a good leader who can help improve schools throughout the city.

“The board of education made an important decision to accept help from the private sector on an issue of public concern,” he said in the statement. “They deserve credit for their resolve and their courage, and for doing the right thing for our children and for our city.”

Mr. Wilmers was unavailable for further comment last week.

Robert S. Peterkin, the director of the Urban Superintendents Program at Harvard University’s graduate school of education, said other big-city school districts, such as Miami-Dade County and San Francisco, have offered chiefs help with housing. Other districts have offered candidates seats on corporate boards as incentives. ( “In Search for Leaders, Private Dollars Add Up,” June 16, 2004.)

But Mr. Wilmers’ role in helping pay for the superintendent search and a portion of the leader’s salary might be a first, he said.

Mr. Peterkin cautioned Buffalo that the public will need assurances that Mr. Wilmers will not be given special consideration on any issue because of his role as benefactor of the superintendent search.

“It makes me a little nervous,” he said. “There are other individuals that may be willing to participate in helping Buffalo find a good leader.”

Mr. Peterkin also serves on the board of trustees of Editorial Projects in Education, which publishes Education Week.

Being Cooperative

Michael Zabel, a vice president of M&T Bank, noted that Mr. Wilmers was using his personal money to help pay for the superintendent search and salary supplement. Buffalo district officials would not estimate how much the search would cost or how much the supplement would be. Ms. Cañedo’s salary was about $180,000.

The bank spokesman defended Mr. Wilmers’ role in the hiring process, saying it’s in his interests as a businessman and community leader to play a role that could benefit local families and the area’s economic well-being.

Mr. Wilmers is also offering the district free help from the bank’s human-resources department and help in seeking guidance from local business leaders, Mr. Zabel said.

The businessman’s relationship with the Buffalo schools goes back at least 11 years to when Mr. Wilmers adopted the public Westminster Community School No. 68 in Buffalo and authorized his bank’s charitable foundation to contribute money and services to the school.

Renamed the Westminster Community Charter School, it has some of the highest test scores in the city, thanks to foundation-backed programs, Mr. Zabel said.

With Mr. Wilmers’ backing, the Buffalo school board allowed the Westminster School to become a charter school as part of a controversial move by the board to expand charters throughout the district. (“Buffalo Board Rejects Charter Moratorium,” Oct. 6, 2004.)

It’s unclear how long the superintendent search will last, though the search panel has picked a firm to help in the process.

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