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State should step in Only Albany stands a chance of breaking BTF's overwhelming power over schools

We're not sure exactly what a state takeover of the Buffalo Public School District would accomplish, but like Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, who has suggested that possibility, we're sure that nothing else has worked. Assuming the matter of teacher evaluations remains unresolved, this is a possibility the state should aggressively pursue.

The problem in the school district lies mainly with the Buffalo Teachers Federation, a myopic and self-absorbed organization that seems to delight in blocking progress and rearranging facts (a practice that teachers ought not to endorse). Its stiff-arm strategy, combined with chronic ineptitude in the district's administration, has led city schools to the cliff's edge.

Not only is the district likely to forfeit millions of dollars in federal aid, but, perhaps even more calamitously, it is liable to drive away private sector organizations that are otherwise eager to help the district improve. One such group, the Center for Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University, has already threatened to drop its plans to work in two of the district's most troubled schools because of the standoff over teacher evaluations. And still, the union persists.

The BTF claims the problem is with the state, because the state has rejected every plan that the union and school district have submitted. That is misleading. The district, likely out of desperation, agreed to union proposals that it and the union had to know would never fly. That acquiescence by the district gave the BTF an opening to claim -- preposterously -- that the state was untrustworthy. Union President Philip Rumore is exploiting that opening like the professional manipulator he is.

Other big urban districts and their unions have managed to agree to evaluation proposals that meet state standards. Only Buffalo is unable to achieve that goal, and it is all because the BTF and Rumore won't agree to a formula that counts the performance of all students, including those who are chronically absent, for just 20 percent of a teacher's evaluation.

It's foolish and destructive and possibly diagnosable. And there is no easy way for parents, students, taxpayers or anyone else to counter it. Such is the nature of state labor law and the contract between the district and the union.

The only possible response is to change the dynamic within the district. In fact, that is already occurring with the rising profile of the District Parent Coordinating Committee, which has shown itself eager to challenge anyone, including the union, standing in the way of a decent education for Buffalo students. The group's influence stands to be enormously beneficial, but it's not enough. To be honest, it's hard to know that Peoples-Stokes' suggestion will be sufficient, but it's time to find out.

Only once has New York State ever taken over a school district. That was in 2002 in Long Island's comparatively tiny Roosevelt School District. The effort was largely deemed unsuccessful, but that only means the state must learn from that experience and craft a better approach in Buffalo. The first part of that process is to focus on the goal, which is altering the balance of power in a district where the union typically wins and the students usually lose.

An effort such as this would be a big lift in Albany. That's not inappropriate. The state should be reluctant to intrude on local democratic processes. In this state, with disproportionate union influence in the State Legislature, it will be especially difficult. But Peoples-Stokes is no union-buster. She is a dyed-in-the-wool liberal Democrat who has benefited from union activism. Her endorsement of this approach speaks volumes about the dysfunction within this school district, particularly the union.

What are the other options? Rumore says give us the money now and we'll figure things out later. But who believes that? With agreements with other unions already in place, the Education Department can't change the rules for Buffalo, and Rumore won't suddenly change his mind about the role that chronically absent students should play in teacher evaluations.

So, while we're uneasy about a state takeover, and unsure of its ability to change the dynamic within the school district, there are no other levers for the frustrated public to pull. The BTF is grossly irresponsible and state law gives it cover to continue that way as long as its leadership chooses. Something has to change, and this is worth a try.