Editorial: MaryEllen Elia joins call to move School Board election

We may differ with State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia on some of the ways to get there, but we share a common goal: Making the Buffalo Board of Education responsive and accountable to the community.

Elia on Monday told Buffalo News editors and reporters that she does not favor having the School Board appointed by the mayor, a position we favor, but she does endorse moving School Board elections to coincide with general elections in November or political primaries in June. We have noted before the positive effect that could have on improving upon the dismal turnout that the current May elections bring.

The turnout on May 7 was 7 percent of the city’s registered voters and everyone elected to the School Board was endorsed by the Buffalo Teachers Federation, which has outsize influence over the process.

“When you have higher turnout you’re going to have people that are thoughtful about a number of different things,” Elia said.

It’s good to see the commissioner getting behind that idea and for her to demonstrate her continued focus on Buffalo schools. Shortly after taking her post as the state’s top educator in 2015, Elia met with the Buffalo School Board and discussed some of the troubled schools that were rumored to be in line for takeover by the state.

“Rest assured, that if the schools do not show demonstrable improvement, someone will come in under my authority and fix those schools,” she told the board.

A few weeks later she recommended Kriner Cash be hired as superintendent. On Monday, Elia said she is still in Cash’s corner and hopes the board will offer him a contract extension beyond 2020.

The News recently called for Buffalo to move to a system in which the mayor appoints the superintendent and School Board, similar to how it’s done in New York City. Some worry that could make the board too political, but is there any better description than “political” for the way the teachers’ union holds sway over the School Board now?

Elia said she does not agree with that approach, citing a long-standing “tradition of having representatives from the community being involved in education.”

Of course the School Board should be responsive to the community, but our current system leaves the board too much in the grip of one institution: the BTF. There’s no reason a board appointed by Mayor Byron W. Brown or his successors couldn’t represent a cross section of the city while having the necessary professionalism to handle a budget of close to $1 billion.

We have advocated in the past for the board doing its best to sign Cash to a contract extension before his current deal expires in August 2020. The superintendent’s New Education Bargain agenda, along with support from programs like My Brother’s Keeper and Say Yes Buffalo, which focus on expanding opportunities for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, has made slow but steady progress in improving graduation rates in a city weighed down by persistent poverty.

The State Education Department’s most recent statistics showed a graduation rate across the Buffalo district of 64.5 percent, a modest increase from 63.8 percent the previous two years. Some critics thought Cash made too much of that, but Elia’s optimism is grounded in fact. “I think the data is showing that Buffalo is moving forward,” she said.