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Dixon gets off to a bumpy start FOCUS: Critics say Amber Dixon hasn't done enough in six months as acting superintendent of Buffalo Schools. Her advocates says she's doing the best she can in a difficult situation.

From the day she became interim superintendent in September, Amber M. Dixon started doing things differently than her predecessor.

She took a salary $45,000 lower than that of the previous superintendent, James A. Williams.

She banned out-of-state travel for district employees.

She forbade buying food for staff meetings on the taxpayers' dime.

And she opted to drive herself to meetings in her Honda SUV, rather than ride in a district-owned Crown Victoria with a paid driver, as Williams had.

Dixon took every opportunity to tell teachers that she respected and valued them -- and told principals she trusted them to run their schools effectively.

Those immediate changes trimmed a few dollars off the $900 million budget, appealed to Buffalo's blue-collar sensibility and boosted morale from Waterfront Elementary to Bennett High School.

But financial savings of that scale and good morale alone do not get kids to come to school, improve test scores or increase graduation rates.

In the past few months, unrest over key issues has grown.

Community activists have clamored for a drastic cut in student suspensions.

Teachers have railed against an evaluation plan that includes chronically absent students.

Parents have threatened to pull children out of low-performing schools for next year.

And the $5.6 million in school improvement grants that the state suspended in January remains in limbo.

The way Dixon has handled these issues and others promises to loom large when the School Board evaluates her -- along with other candidates -- for the superintendency. In December, just before the board launched its search for a permanent superintendent, an effort among some board members to offer her a two-year contract failed to get enough support to move forward -- leaving Dixon leading the district without a vote of confidence from the board, many say.

"I think I'm the right person to do the job. But this can't be a case of settling for a local candidate. They have to decide I'm the right person for the job," she said. "I can't be the easy candidate. I have to be the right candidate."

> Evaluating teachers

One of the most contentious issues on Dixon's watch has been the struggle to hash out a teacher-evaluation plan that is acceptable to both the Buffalo Teachers Federation as well as the state Education Department.

At stake is $5.6 million in school improvement grants for the current school year at six schools.

The main point of contention between the teachers and the district has been how, or whether, to count the performance of students who are chronically absent.

Dixon and Buffalo Teachers Federation President Philip Rumore a little more than a week ago agreed on a plan that counted all students but adjusted expectations in schools with severe attendance problems.

The state last week rejected the plan -- hours before the union's Council of Delegates was scheduled to vote on it -- and has since identified four areas needing revision.

Dixon says the necessary changes have been made; all that's needed now is sign-off from the union.

"There's nothing to object to any more, in my opinion," Regent Robert M. Bennett said. "God forbid Buffalo be the only district not to get their money restored."

If the plan is not approved by the state or by the union, more than 50 teachers could receive layoff notices.

Many teachers have said that not only are they tired of feeling like scapegoats for lackluster results, they are tired of the lack of clear information and constant wrangling over the teacher evaluations.

Teachers in every building have already voted twice on versions of the plan. The union's Council of Delegates voted on one earlier version, then was scheduled to vote again last week, until the state rejected the plan they were to vote on.

"The general sentiment, is we're sick of being jerked around," one high school teacher said.

Many parents, too, are frustrated, but for different reasons. Parent leader Samuel L. Radford III says the district has lost out on tens of millions of dollars in improvement grants over the past three years, and the students in those schools are paying the price. Parents in those schools have the right to transfer their children to other schools, he notes -- something he's encouraging them to do.

District officials should know in the next several days whether the $5.6 million will be restored.

"It has not gone smoothly," Dixon acknowledged. "No, I have not succeeded yet. I have not failed, but I have not succeeded yet. We've operated in good faith. And we haven't stopped trying."

Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, like many community leaders, noted the district still has not submitted a plan the state has approved, but she put more of the onus for that on the teachers union than on Dixon.

"I think when you go into negotiations knowing that your counterpart has no intention on settling for these requirements -- I think she did a fabulous job," Peoples-Stokes said. "She knew how important it was for the district to have access to these resources. She just forged ahead. I like that approach. It appeared as if she was fighting for the children."

Many in the business and philanthropic community also expressed frustration over the lack of a successful outcome so far, but they nevertheless lauded Dixon's efforts.

"She's been extraordinarily patient dealing with a very complex situation that in many cases is beyond her control," said Robert Gioia, president of the Oishei Foundation. "She's trying to navigate a history of decades of inability to craft an agreement with the organized workforce."

> Low-performing schools

The final outcome also has yet to be determined regarding another major initiative under Dixon: the crafting of improvement plans for seven low-performing schools that failed to receive grants for this year.

Last spring, the School Board voted at the last minute to abandon plans for seven schools that involved moving half the teachers out of each building, after the Buffalo Teachers Federation voiced objections. Instead, the board opted to hire outside groups to run the schools.

State Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. gave Buffalo another chance, coupled with what he said was an ultimatum: submit acceptable plans for the schools by Dec. 31, 2011, or have the state close Lafayette High School.

Under Williams, a team of administrators in City Hall put together the improvement plans, with minimal input from the schools.

Dixon took a different approach: She asked the principal of each school to quarterback an improvement plan.

Some people welcomed the more grass-roots approach, saying it was a welcome change from years of top-down management under Williams.

Others said the process failed to include adequate input from parents or teachers.

Some questioned how qualified those principals were to draft improvement plans, noting that some were relatively inexperienced as building administrators.

And some said Dixon's approach of leaving it to the schools was typical of an overarching lack of clear direction from City Hall under her leadership.

"Nobody knows who's in charge," one building-level administrator said.

Dixon notes that the plans the board chose for three of the schools -- Futures Academy, Drew Science Magnet and Bilingual Center School 33 -- involve moving half the teachers, the same model the board rejected a year ago, in the face of opposition by the teachers union.

The state Education Department has reviewed the building plans and is expected to issue a decision sometime this month.

> Office staff reduced

When Dixon was appointed, she vowed to cut the central office staff to 20 or fewer non-union administrators.

Under Williams, the ranks of those administrators had swelled from 13 to 28, and several lacked the minimum qualifications posted for their jobs. He fiercely defended his hires, saying they were smart people who served the district well, and he said they saved the district money because they did not receive overtime and contributed toward their health insurance.

Dixon pared that staff from 28 to 20. Three administrators accepted lower-paying, non-union positions. Others took jobs outside the district. None was fired.

Some say Dixon took the necessary steps to right-size a bloated upper administration.

Others, though, say she lacked the courage to make dramatic changes and instead rearranged the same people who had failed for years to move the district forward, without bringing in enough new blood.

"When I've asked anyone to take an administrative position that is exempt, I'm asking them to take a leap of faith," Dixon said, because she is an interim superintendent, rather than permanent. She defends the fact that some administrators took other jobs in the district. "And I was not brought in to give payback to anyone."

> Addressing suspensions

The June 2010 shooting death of a Lafayette High School senior shortly after he was suspended and sent home for wandering the halls raised concerns among many regarding the district's suspension policies.

The district instituted changes for 2010-11: Namely, most suspended students were to report to school two hours a day for their state-mandated period of instruction, rather than getting two hours of tutoring off-site, which administrators acknowledged was not being provided to many students.

Many said those changes did not go far enough.

A year and a half after Jawaan Daniels died, community activists crowded School Board meetings to champion the suspension issue, saying thousands of students were still being suspended for minor infractions -- such as wandering the halls or violating the dress code -- and missing critical days in the classroom, putting them further and further behind academically and more likely to drop out.

Dixon directed her staff to compile a list of recommendations to cut the number of out-of-school suspensions for nonviolent offenses.

In early February, she implemented multiple changes in district regulations. Those changes include requiring parental conferences before elementary students can be suspended; developing corrective action plans for schools with excessive suspensions; and creating in-school suspension rooms by August.

The most recent numbers available from the district indicate there were 833 short-term suspensions in February -- not a significant change from the 857 in January, before the changes were introduced.

The number of suspensions in each of those months in 2012, though, reflected a more-than-39 percent decrease from the same month in 2011. (The number of suspensions for each of the first four months of 2011-12, though, showed virtually no change from the previous school year.)

"When confronted with community outrage over suspensions, I crafted a change in regulations that are showing an effect," Dixon said.

The outcome has left people on various sides of the issue unhappy.

The activists who pushed for change say they are glad the district has begun addressing a problem that should have been addressed immediately after Jawaan's death. But, they say, the district has not gone far enough in correcting long-standing problems.

They tend to pin the blame on a School Board that they say has not taken a leadership role in addressing the issue, as well as central office administrators under Dixon who have dragged their feet.

"I think she's walking through a minefield," said Jim Anderson, a board member of Citizen Action of New York. "I think everybody was aware of the problems, but we have an existing mindset where nobody wants to rock the boat by telling on each other. Also, the School Board did a horrible job and were of no help to her on this issue."

He and other activists say the changes Dixon introduced were good in theory but have yet to be fully implemented in all schools. And they are still pushing for policy changes -- something that must come from the School Board.

"My sense is that Amber has done a good job of trying to do what she can, administratively, against a great deal of push-back," said Sherry Byrnes, a former School Board member who has been vocal about reducing suspensions. "She's obviously not responsible for what direction the board does or does not take. She can only indicate a direction."

At the same time, many teachers say they have been left with little recourse for disciplining students.

Teachers say the clear mandate from top administrators at City Hall recently has been that each school must reduce its suspension numbers. In the past several weeks, students have become more out of control, teachers say, knowing that the consequences that once existed for their misbehavior no longer loom.

"It's brutal, this push for no suspensions," said one teacher at a low-performing high school. "If you take away suspension rights, you lose schools to chaos."

email: mpasciak@buffnews.com