Bernie Tolbert is running for a citywide seat on Buffalo’s Board of Education. He brings to the table a long career’s worth of experience — from leading the Buffalo field office of the FBI to serving as the NBA’s top security official, overseeing safety operations for all of the league’s arenas. Before he became an expert in security, he worked as a teacher at Bennett High School. In fact, Tolbert comes from a large family of educators.
Tolbert says his focus is going to be on providing the district sound governance, and sees his role as a consensus builder. This is what he had to say about education reform, district leadership, and what we should be doing to fix our school system.
Why did you decide to run for school board?
I think all of our kids should have the opportunity to be exposed to good educators. My mother was a good educator. My mother was 23 years old when my father left her with 5 kids. She did not have a high school education. With no degree and five babies, obviously we were on public assistance, living in a public housing complex here in Buffalo. But education was important to her, and she pushed it on us. She made sure that every day when we came home that we did our homework. She went to all the parent teacher conferences. Everything that’s involved in education, she made sure we did it.
She went back to school at night. She got her high school degree then went to Buffalo State to get her college degree. Eventually she became a teacher, and she retired as head of elementary education in Buffalo. All of our kids deserve that type of exposure. I want to do my part to make that happen.
I have grandkids going to Buffalo Public Schools and nothing would make me happier than to see them get the kind of education that will make them successful.
For so many successful people from disadvantaged backgrounds, they reflect on their childhood and inevitably there is a strong relationship that they have with a parent or a mentor that really becomes their “x-factor”. For kids who don’t have those role models, is there anything that the district could or should we be doing?
You’re right, and my mother was my “x-factor”. When I talk to people, I say that if I could bottle what my mother had and sprinkle it over all of the other parents, then everything would be alright. But it’s not that simple.
The district can be doing some things; obviously, mentorship programs.
A week doesn’t go by that young men don’t come up to me, asking “are you Mrs. Yokely’s son?” They then talk about their experience with her as their teacher. The impact that she had on them is just incredible. If we can get people like that – some of them are retired – and find an effective way to plug them in and give them an ability to be a part of the school system again, even if it’s just bringing them in once a week to talk to kids or to advise student groups, I think some kids would benefit.
What will be your primary policy priority?
From an overall standpoint: good governance. I see a real lack of good governance right now, which cuts through so many issues: school choice, the achievement gap, supporting good educators. The Board’s responsibility is to set direction and policy: to say this is where we are going. Then you hire a Superintendent to get you there. Of course, then provide the oversight and ensure the resources.
I don’t see that. There is a lack of direction on the part of the Board, and the Superintendent does more of the directional things. From the Superintendent on down, everyone on the food chain should know where we’re going and how what they are doing helps us get to where we want to be. If you’re the person who is emptying the trash in the classroom, you should understand how what you’re doing is getting us to where we’re going.
What do you think of the organizational structure that we have, particularly relating to the Central District Office?
When I talk about governance, one of the things that I’ve spoken about is decentralizing the bureaucracy. We don’t have a one-size-fits-all school system and we shouldn’t have that type of approach. We have an overall policy and direction set by the school board, but within that we should be saying to principals that you should be making decisions. They know their schools better than anyone else. School A may be different from School B in terms of staffing, the kinds of kids, the neighborhood. Within this overall policy structure, they should decide things like staffing, budgeting, curriculum.
Parent groups have been vocally upset. They don’t feel like they’ve been engaged by the administration and aren’t welcomed to participate in ways that, perhaps, private or suburban schools embrace parents’ groups. What have we been doing wrong in terms of how the district engages with parents? How can we do better?
One thing we need to do as a board is have families engaged and find ways to communicate to parents how their children are performing and what they can do to help their children be successful. But that can’t be a one way street. It can’t just be the board telling parents. The board also needs to listen to parents. We need to have parents tell us their issues and concerns, what their children need. Parents know their children better than anyone else and they have a right to tell us what they need. Parents also need to know they are welcome. I have often said that school board meetings need to be taken out of City Hall and into schools throughout the district. We can then bring in perhaps college students who can earn credit for community participation by running program for children in the school while the board meeting is going on. This way (and then bring in babysitters to the meetings, so) more parents can attend and become an integral part of what the board is doing. That makes it possible for parents with child care concerns to attend the meetings.
What is your assessment of Dr. Pamela Brown?
Dr. Brown has been under fire since she started the job. One of my concerns is how that impacts her ability to do what she is supposed to do when she is constantly fighting battles. As for the criticisms, some have been misguided and some legitimate. But whoever the superintendent is, the board has to set the direction and the goals and support the superintendent and give them what they need to achieve those goals. What we don’t have right now is the board setting the policy and direction. Too much of that is coming from the superintendent’s office and we have to fix that. We also need to ensure that we have the right kind of evaluation tools that will evaluate the Superintendent on the appropriate goals and directions that get the board where they need to be— modify and determine the evaluation tools so they are effective.
Would you extend Dr. Brown’s contract?
I would want to look at her self-evaluation and what the board has done to determine if she has been successful in meeting the goals set for her. Then I would make a decision. To be clear, my goal in running for school board is to create good quality schools that will make our kids the best that they can be. That’s what I’m in it for. Whatever is going to help do that, then I’m in favor of it. If not, I’m not, whether it’s the superintendent or anybody of anything else.
What is your assessment of Carl Paladino?
I don’t know him personally. I have only been around him at functions and meetings. That being said, I accept that Carl cares about the kids. He just has his own way of doing things that are different than mine. He likes to toss hand grenades and blow things up. That’s his style. I don’t do things that way. So I don’t know that I’m the right person or in the proper place to judge his performance. I will say that at the last board meeting I heard him question one of the staff on a procurement matter, relative to the cost of one vendor over another. That was a question that needed to be asked and Carl brings a perspective from his business background that is valuable. I would dare to say that from other meetings I’ve attended before Carl was on the board, a lot of those things got rubber stamped and passed. So he’s drawing attention to important things. Ultimately, he’s one board member, one vote. If I’m elected I would look forward to working with him as much as any board member.
What’s your assessment of BPS’s organizational structure? What are your thoughts on the concept of Mayoral control of schools?
We need to have more mayoral involvement. We have nine school board members, six elected from the district and three at large. Perhaps the mayor should have the ability to appoint the three at- large board members and have someone who, from the mayor/city’s perspective, is watching out for our children. It also depends on who the mayor is whether mayoral control may or may not be a good thing. It could become a patronage pool of friends and family and you could get people in jobs because they made contributions to a person’s campaign versus someone who is an effective leader.
How do you improve morale, particularly among teachers? Some teachers argue that their role is to instruct, not to parent. Should we be promoting a different organizational culture?
When it comes to teacher morale, I’ve had 40 years of professional experience dealing with morale issues. Based on that experience I think one of the things we can do is to make sure everyone knows where we are going— the goals for our schools and our students— and clearly define and discuss those goals. Communication is important. Everyone needs to know that they are part of the process and should be encouraged to contribute— that they bring value and there is respect for everyone’s ideas and creativity. One of the worst things we can do is to rely on traditions because it stifles creativity, stifles the ability to dare to be different and dare to try new things.
Many teachers say they feel disempowered to change the system. What do we need to do to build an organization that promotes innovation, that nurtures ideas, that can adapt, and that is always oriented around self-improvement?
The board needs to set the tone. We need to let the teachers know that we want to hear from them. What they need and think, their concerns and issues, as well as what the board is doing well and what we are not doing well. We also need to provide training for administrators, to build proper management skills. Help them understand that as an administrator they need to engage their teachers and share their ideas.
Would you support performance bonuses or other incentives structured into new compensation agreements?
Our greatest asset is our children and we trust our greatest asset to teachers. If we are going to trust them to handle what is most valuable to us then we have to give teachers what they need to do the job. We need to recognize teachers who perform well and reward them for quality instruction and methods that produce good results. Not necessarily only in monetary ways, but other ways as well….time off, public recognition among their peers, perhaps in ceremonies each month. Let teachers know they are appreciated for what they’re doing. We also have to set expectations so that teachers know what it is they have to do to achieve and be rewarded. Then they can decide for themselves if they want to work for those rewards.
In your Mayoral campaign, you expressed support for vouchers. Some have called for a totally new model, like a universal voucher program that decentralizes the system and dissolves districtwide management. Could you see yourself supporting a bold restructuring of the governance model?
All public schools ought to be high quality, high performing schools. That should be our end goal. At the same time every child in Buffalo should get to attend a high performing school that will prepare them for college and a career. Until we reach that combined goal, parents have a right to expect that their child will be educated in a school that does well. If we don’t have the capability to do that then charter schools are a viable option, private schools, parochial schools, even home schooling. I’m open to any option that does not relegate a child to an education in an underperforming school and results in a quality education.
What do you bring to the table that would make you a good board member?
Education has been at the core of my life. I’ve also had a career when I’ve had to deal with the same type of issues currently facing the board. HR issues, hiring, terminations, I’ve done them all and I’m not afraid to make those tough decisions. Having been responsible for managing multi- million dollar budgets will allow me to look at the school budgets and have an understanding of what is right and what we could do differently. And my overall law enforcement, security, private sector experience is something I would bring to the board that I don’t think they have right now, the ability to help guide district wide policy and direction that would help ensure same school environments that are conducive to good learning. Most importantly I can and I will work with anybody and I am willing to compromise to set and reach goals. In everything I have done, I have always worked to build consensus. That’s the way I’ve always been and how I’ll be as a board member.