photo by /Blanc Photographie
Sharon Belton Cottman was sworn in as president of the Buffalo School Board on July 1 after being elected by a majority vote to that coveted position.
Born and raised in Buffalo, she is a product of Buffalo Public Schools – attending Schools #47, Clinton Jr. High, Genesee Humboldt, and East High. She also attended Canisius College and earned a Bachelor of Science from Medaille College. Belton-Cottman’s career focused primarily in the financial industries. She previously worked as a licensed home mortgage consultant at Wells Fargo and in various other roles within the banking and finance industry. She is a long time member of True Bethel Baptist Church, as well as a community advocate. In fact it was her fight against the closing of School 53 which led to her first being appointed to the Board of Education (she subsequently ran for the position and was elected for 3 terms). The mother of two adult children and six grand children, she is the daughter of the late Thelma and Edward Belton.
-Rise to the Top-
Her rise to the top leadership position on the School Board is viewed by many as a natural ascendency given her status as the longest tenured member on the board. Belton-Cottman has served as Ferry District representative since 2011 and has worked with seven superintendents during her eight year term.
A self described “fearless advocate” for equity for all students, particularly the underrepresented groups, she is as passionate as she is knowledgeable about the issues facing the district today.
The Buffalo School Board oversees an educational system of more than 60 schools and 33,400 students. Belton-Cottman said she looks forward to working with Superintendent Cash and fellow board members to ensure continued improvement of that system during her tenure.
“My primary concern,” she emphasized, “is the education of Buffalo school children.”
We recently spoke with Ms. Belton-Cottman about her new role as President of the School Board. The interview follows.
What do you see as the primary responsibility of the Board of Education?
The Buffalo Board of Education is primarily responsible for the education of the children in the Buffalo Public School District. We are responsible for overseeing our employee, the superintendent, the adoption of policies rules and bylaws, reviewing and approving the budget annually among other obligations. New York School Board Laws empowers the Board for voting on every aspect of what is required to run a district.
How do you see your role as Board President?
As President of the Board I see my role as continuing to work with Superintendent Cash on the district’s shared vision for the future, such as the Educational Bargain. I also see my role as being supportive of the board members and working to develop policies and procedure. I will act as the primary spokesperson representing the board, conduct board meetings, while working with anyone locally and nationally concerned with helping make the educational experience and the quality of education for all children in this district world class. I hope that my new platform as Board President will help escalate our district to higher achievement and greater success.
How much money does the Board of Education Control?
The current budget for the Buffalo Board of Education is approximately one billion dollars. The primary sources are state and federal aid, grants, city property tax and county sales tax. When we compare revenue received from our local city and county governments to what the Rochester School District receives, we are under funded by $20 million dollars.
What are the top three things you would like to see under your tenure?
I would like to right size budget spending and provide equity support and resources for the students with the greatest needs. I would like to increase our parental/guardian and community involvement to 50%. The data supports, when a child’s family is involved and engaged in their educational experience/school community, behaviors, attendance and graduation rates improve and suspensions decrease. I would like the graduation rate to increase to 70% this school year and over the next three years increase to 75%.
Did the issue of accountability play a role in your objection to the superintendent’s pay raises for his cabinet?
Absolutely. Buffalo is a poor school district and every dollar counts and should be measured against and for the education of our children. Being a seasoned board member, I did not feel that there was a need to rush this item through for approval without it being properly vetted. I was not trying to begrudge staff a raise; certainly great work is being done in our district. However, for me, that does not automatically equal salaries increases two years in a row. Had this item been moved over to committee for further review, in time I may have voted differently. As the record reflects, I was the lone opposing vote.
What have been some of the Board’s major accomplishments over the past four years since Superintendent Cash was appointed in 2015?
Under Dr. Cash’s leadership the district and the Educational Bargain which consists of rigorous early elementary education, we have seen 21 strong community schools, 11 innovative high schools, extended learning excellence for all students, services for our neediest children and families and relationship with our teachers. The Board has approved smaller class sized for K-3; graduation rates are increasing while suspensions are decreasing. Relations with Community partners and institutions of higher learning such as our colleges and universities has seen impressive growth. Adult education has expanded. The Pathway Academy, Virtual Advance Placement and AP courses are now offered in all of our high schools. The teacher’s contract was settled after 13 years and to address the lack of diversity among teachers we are now growing our own teachers in our Urban Teacher Academy and have expanded our recruiting efforts to include HSBU colleges. All children now have computers or i-pads. A contract to provide internet access Wi-Fi to help eliminate the digital divide was signed recently. The Parent Congress recently added the MVP community-based parent groups. We have a 4 year financial plan and the budget is balanced. We are three years into our Culturally Linguistically Responsive Training Curriculum and My Brother’s Keeper is a male academy for young man of color. These are just a few things, for more go to our website www:Buffaloschools.org.
Has the issue of the call for diversity at City Honors been resolved?
This issue is still being worked on and there is much more that must be done under the watchful eye of the superintendent. However, I am proud to report that for the first time in the history of the school, over half of the incoming 5th grade class is made up of minorities. This is the result of several initiatives, to name a few, the district put in place more access for the placement exam by providing testing opportunity during the school day and weekend, prerequisite proof of residency and providing district student preference where applicable.
What do you think about the recent pay increase that the Common Council Approved for School Board members?
Recognizing that being a board member is a position that the Common Council does not even find worthy of granting a decent pay raise after 47 years, is hard to fathom. The amount of time, work, and personal sacrifice required to serve as a school board member deserves to be compensated equitably, similarly to Rochester and other school boards. The board’s stipend was upped $10,000 after 50 years, going from $5,000 to $15,000. This is insulting at best, particularly in light of the fact that the Council gave themselves raises more than double the amount they approved for the Buffalo Board of Education.
What do you see as the biggest challenge being President of the Board?
I believe my biggest challenge is keeping the board focused on the issues which impact education and getting the results to enhance the education for all children of this district. If we can agree to build on the issues which unite us we will be a functioning school board and this is what successful school boards and school districts do. Our current board is made up of very intelligent, accomplished and resourceful individuals. We have already had one successful retreat which focused on the issues and promises made during the election. We already have started to chart our success. “Time is of the Essence” regarding the education of our children of this district. The children’s education depends on us – the elected entrusted individuals which make up this nine member board.
In light of the dismal voter turnout for school board elections, The Change the Date Coalition is calling to change over the election to the same date as the primary election in June to increase voter participation. Do you support such a move?
Under the purpose changes it is clear to see that the political parties will be in control of your school board. Proponents for this bill claim that the teacher’s union controls the board. I am my own person and I run my campaign. Since I have never been a part of the political machine in this city I have had to fund my campaign with my own money and help from my supporters and in the past it has included unions. But I can truthfully and proudly attest that I stand in the shoes of great leaders like Betty Jean Grant and Shirley Chisolm, because I am “un-bought and un-bossed.” Finally, I am reminded of who was promoting this initiative prior to me coming on the board in 2011. It was not the Democrats but the Republican party. It is a fact that Black voters are out voted in most elections in this city. So do the math and follow the money. I say the votes do not add up; we will be out voted in a school board election that is held during a general election in this city when the proper time comes. I sincerely hope I am wrong.
Do You Plan to Hold Town Hall meetings in the Future?
Yes. I want to meet with the community at least once a quarter. I hope the people will come out and attend. I also intend on being more visual in the community at public meetings and on the radio talk shows. The district and I have tried over the years to get more community involvement at the public meetings but the overall attendance in the past was poor. I hope that my presidency has signaled to the community that we must stand up for our children. We must get informed in order to know what is happening. Our children are too important not to care.