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Education commissioner to Buffalo: Fix your schools, or I will

If there was any question how serious the state is about taking control of Buffalo’s schools, new Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia made clear her intentions to Buffalo School Board members late last week. ¶ “Rest assured,” she told them in a meeting in Buffalo,“that if the schools do not show demonstrable improvement, someone will come in under my authority and fix those schools.” ¶ The state Education Department already is taking steps to do just that. ¶ A year from now, five Buffalo schools are headed for a takeover by someone outside the district. ¶ Twenty more city schools are on the same path for the following year. ¶ At that point, the state has within its power to place any city school it deems failing in the hands of someone outside the district. And as it stands now, just 15 of the district’s 56 schools are in good standing with the state. ¶ That means, unless significant improvement is made in student performance, someone other than the Buffalo superintendent or School Board will be in charge of nearly half of Buffalo’s public schools in just a couple of years. ¶ When Elia demanded that the School Board fix the city schools or she would act, she was referring

to a new state law that allows for the appointment of receivers who would have unprecedented powers to make sweeping changes at failing schools.

A receiver, appointed by the district from a list of candidates selected by the state commissioner, would have the authority to circumvent the voting power of the School Board and force changes to union contracts.

The receiver could lengthen the school day, require staff members to reapply for their jobs and implement academic programs.

The new commissioner has been on the job just two weeks, and already it is clear she intends to be an unquestionable force in a district that has consistently failed to improve student competency scores and graduation rates.

Elia’s authority and intent became clear during the meeting with the board, when in a no-nonsense tone, she several times reinforced her message that, if the district cannot figure out how to fix its schools, she will.

Attempts to explain

Some members on both sides of the usually bickering board attempted to explain the district’s past failures and plans for the future. She rejected each attempt.

The scenario that played out between the commissioner and the board members smacked of students sent to the principal’s office to explain their misbehavior. Elia’s tone became increasingly more direct as the meeting progressed.

Wearing a serious face with hands folded in front of her, Elia wasn’t buying excuses – from anyone on either side of the divided board.

At one point, board majority member Larry Quinn suggested the high schools on the receivership list were beyond repair and the district should focus its effort on elementary schools.

“Let’s be honest, you’re only looking at Buffalo,” Elia said, referring to possible solutions. “There are high schools in this nation that have been turned around. It’s going to be a huge sea change for this district and you’re the ones who are going to decide if you’re going to get there. You have a vote on a board to make the decision whether you’re going to do it.”

Quinn later suggested it could take a year to come up with plans for those schools.

“I can tell you, if you’re going to take a year to come up with a plan, you’re not going to have those schools any more,” she responded.

And when board member Sharon Belton-Cottman attempted to defend the district, Elia shared a similar exchange.

“I don’t want the impression to be given to you that this district cannot function,” Belton-Cottman said.

“For whatever reason,” Elia replied, “the Buffalo school system with the School Board has not gotten its act together at those schools.”

Board members Mary Ruth Kapsiak and Carl P. Paladino were not present for the meeting.

Narrow window

Buffalo school district leaders have a narrow window to come up with turnaround plans for the 25 schools on the path for receivership. Five of those schools have one year to make changes and show demonstrable progress, and the other 20 have two years.

But Elia repeatedly pointed out that, if history is any indication, Buffalo school leaders consistently failed to come up with successful plans for improvement at those schools.

If the schools do not improve – based on various academic and other benchmarks – the district will have to select an outside receiver from a list the commissioner generates.

And Elia said she already is looking across the country for people with a track record for successful turnaround efforts.

Buffalo school leaders have expressed concerns about the tight turnaround to plan for the first wave of schools that have just one year to improve. And because of timelines laid out in the state guidelines, some changes might not kick in until after the start of the school year.

“There’s a lot of work that needs to get done over the next few weeks before school starts,” said Georgia Asciutto, executive director of the Conference of Big Five School Districts. “We have to work through the nuances of the statutory and regulatory issues. We’re all committed to the work. But it is a very difficult process to get underway.”

The receiver would be expected to negotiate certain changes with local unions, but in cases where the parties can not reach an agreement, the education commissioner would make the final ruling.

The commissioner also will play a key role in determining who can act as an outside receiver. She will be responsible for vetting applicants and compiling a list of prospects that the district can choose from.

A receiver could be an individual educator, a nonprofit organization, a charter school or even another school district.

Other models

Receivership would be an unprecedented level of state involvement in a local district for New York State. But other states have some form of control over school systems, especially in urban areas that have chronically failed to improve student performance.

And as federal policies have driven more accountability in schools, the options for reorganization have become more varied – and in some cases resulted in drastic changes.

Following Hurricane Katrina, the state of Louisiana seized control of all the traditional public schools in New Orleans, creating a Recovery School District composed entirely of charters.

In Memphis, the district – backed by members of the City Council and School Board – voluntarily surrendered its charter, forcing the state to figure out what to do with its 100,000 students. Ultimately, following a referendum of city voters, the district was dissolved and merged with the surrounding county.

Massachusetts law allows for the state to appoint individuals or nonprofit organizations to take over individual schools or entire districts. The Lawrence School District in Massachusetts is the first district where a state-appointed receiver completely oversees the schools.

New York lawmakers used the Massachusetts model as their basis, although the law ultimately approved in Albany does not go so far as allowing the takeover of an entire district.

But it does open the door for some serious repercussions for the structure and governance of the Buffalo public schools, not to mention staffing and union contracts.

Supporters, critics

If receivership effectively downsizes the Buffalo school district, that might not be a bad outcome, according to some.

“The schools are too big, the district is too big,” said Samuel L. Radford III, president of the District Parent Coordinating Council. “The fact that we have some intervention in a district that has consistently had a 50 percent graduation rate is critical. Here’s the first time that we actually have an intervention model that takes the schools out of the hands of where the problem is.”

But the model also has its critics, who question whether a leadership change is enough to yield results.

“That someone’s going to come in here and wave a magic wand, and all of these kids who have severe problems will start doing well, that’s just not going to happen,” Buffalo Teachers Federation President Philip Rumore said.

Elia disagrees.

“It’s important for you to understand there will be consequences if you can’t move those schools forward,” she said. “It’s handing you a tool and giving you an option to use it. If you don’t use it, I will.”