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With Elia brooking no more excuses, School Board must perform – or else

New York Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia came to Buffalo last week and read the riot act to the School Board.

“Rest assured that if the schools do not show demonstrable improvement, someone will come in under my authority and fix those schools,” she said. It was a good start. Now she has to be prepared to follow through.

It was, by all accounts, a respectful and pleasant-enough meeting, but Elia, on the job for less than two weeks, made her position abundantly plain: Fix the schools or she will.

When School Board members, from the majority and minority factions, tried to explain their failures, Elia would have none of it. Board member Larry Quinn suggested that the district’s underperforming high schools were already beyond hope. Elia responded that all the board had to do was to look outside Buffalo for examples of high schools that have been turned around. Indeed, The Buffalo News has reported on some of those schools, in New York and in other states. It’s not an impossible task.

Board member Sharon Belton-Cottman suggested that the district wasn’t really so bad. Elia brought the conversation back to the topic at hand: “For whatever reason, the Buffalo school system with the School Board has not gotten its act together at those schools.”

That’s about to change, if Elia has anything to say about it. And, vested with the power of a new state law, she does.

That law, approved as part of the state budget, creates a receivership system for substandard schools that fail to make notable improvements. In Buffalo, it means that five schools could be taken over a year from now, and 20 more the year after that.

The receiver would have the authority to circumvent the power of the School Board and could lengthen the school day, require staff members to reapply for their jobs and implement academic programs. The receiver could also force changes to union contracts. If, even after working with an outside “conciliator,” the receiver and union failed to agree on necessary changes – in Buffalo, the failure is practically guaranteed – Elia would make the final ruling.

Predictably, some critics, including Buffalo Teachers Federation President Philip Rumore, don’t like that provision and doubt that the receiver model will do much to fix the schools. “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.”

To some extent, of course, he’s right. But the response to that is Elia’s to Quinn: Replicate the successful models from elsewhere. If the union contracts hinder that from happening, then negotiate the necessary changes. With the powers of the new law to force such changes, the BTF has powerful reason to get ahead of the boulder that soon may be rolling over it.

No one can plausibly claim that the powers provided by the new law are excessive. They come into play only after persistent failures whose consequences play out in what may be a lifetime of diminished opportunities for thousands of students.

Buffalo’s failures go beyond persistent. They are chronic and the current School Board members, like others before them, show no ability to work in a cooperative way to surmount those failures. They don’t even show the interest. The board’s factions would rather dig in their heels, hurl insults and make a challenging task even more difficult. The BTF is no better.

What has been necessary is a tool – or is it a weapon? – to induce cooperation and, if that is not forthcoming, to move forward anyway on a different track, one that values students over squabbling adults.

This new law provides that ammunition. Elia understands that she may have to use it, and is already scouting for receivers with a track record of success. She should keep her powder dry.

Welcome to New York, commissioner.