The problem, it is clear, comes down to the question of competence and, more specifically, the lack of it. The leadership of the Buffalo School District needs to be spoon-fed in order to accomplish required tasks that other big districts manage to complete on their own – and even with that help, Buffalo comes up short.
Something has to change.
This week’s failures center on turnaround plans for two schools and the district’s lack of planning to accommodate the legally required transfers of students who want to move from one of the district’s 42 underperforming schools to schools in good standing with the state. As usual, the district dallied in its responsibility until too late. Transfers that were going to be a difficult task to accomplish have become all but impossible.
Samuel Radford III, president of the District Parent Coordinating Council, highlighted the chronic problem. “Why do we, the parents and students, have to get consequences when we understood what the law was?” he asked in addressing the School Board. “We didn’t ask for anything extra. We asked for people to do their jobs. We asked the board to provide oversight for the following of the law. Now we’re here a year later, and this is the oversight you’ve provided us.”
Which is to say, none.
State Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. made the point in a telephone conversation with The News editorial board last week. The district, he said, has a history of “shading the facts” as a way of defending its chronic failures to meet administrative requirements. It’s been a pattern over the past year, he said, and one that is not shared by the state’s other troubled school districts.
Rochester, for example, clearly understands the urgency of improving student performance, he said, “and they have organized their central office staff to deliver high-quality, approvable applications that describe improvement plans in those schools.” Rochester looks for a path forward, Buffalo looks for excuses.
That is true, even though King says State Ed has provided “extraordinary technical assistance” that other districts did not need.
The district has shunned other help. Claire Sylvan is the founding executive director of Internationals Network for Public Schools and a colleague of King. She is a nationally recognized expert in the education of immigrants and English language learners, a key challenge in Buffalo.
Board of Regents member Robert Bennett said he informed Superintendent Pamela C. Brown six months ago that Sylvan – who has successfully practiced what she preaches in New York City – was willing to consult with the Buffalo district, yet he said no one contacted her until recently, when new School Board Member Carl Paladino picked up a phone.
We’re glad he did, but it should have been Brown or School Board President Barbara Nevergold reaching out. Yet, what reason was there to think they would show any initiative, when the board’s history – see Radford’s comment above – is to do as little as possible as late as possible?
Even with the state’s help, the district was on the verge of producing a transfer plan that was going to be unacceptable. A letter to Brown from the state’s deputy education commissioner detailed six problems that gave the plan “no possibility” of approval. How can a district teach students when its leaders can’t learn? It certainly becomes a more challenging task.
The board tweaked the plan, which it then approved 6-3. It would allow transfers for a maximum of just 500 of the 2,200 students who requested one. Turnaround plans for Lafayette and East high schools were approved by votes of 6-3 and 8-1, respectively.
Whether the state will approve any of these plans is up in the air, but it seems, at least regarding the transfers, to be unlikely.
School opens in just over three weeks. These matters should have been settled long ago. The district has produced multiple failed plans for the school turnarounds and has now been working on an unacceptable one on transfers – even though it had a year’s notice. It’s intolerable. Something has to change.