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School Board is on dangerous ground in blowing off the Justice Department

Less than a week after New York’s new education commissioner put the Buffalo School Board on notice, it’s back to business as usual. The only difference is that instead of irritating MaryEllen Elia, the board is now poking a stick in the eye of the U.S. Department of Education. Where are the grownups?

The issue is a complaint by the department’s Office of Civil Rights regarding possible racial discrimination in admission standards for the district’s criterion-based schools. Based on that, the district hired the UCLA Civil Rights Project and its leader, Gary Orfield, to analyze the issue and, if appropriate, offer recommendations to address the problems.

In May, Orfield issued a report confirming the Office of Civil Rights’ complaint and issuing a number of recommendations whose main thrusts were to change the admissions process and expand the opportunity to attend criterion-based schools such as City Honors and Frederick Law Olmsted. It was, by and large, a sensible approach, including some ideas that board members had already shown support for and that could yet be negotiated with the Department of Education. The board has until Aug. 15 to respond.

The Buffalo School Board chose a different approach. Instead of treating a civil rights complaint by the Department of Education with the respect that it deserves, the board decided to do … nothing. Instead, its majority members thought it would be fun to ask the Office of Civil Rights for more time, although what benefit additional time could possibly offer to this dysfunctional board is beyond imagining.

Judy Elliott, the state-appointed distinguished educator, warned the board against the action. “They are not going to look kindly at any delay,” she told the board. “If you come up short, they will tell you what to do.” And, in response to the notion that the lack of a permanent superintendent is a good excuse, she observed: “No disrespect, that’s not their problem.”

Not only is she right, she is plainly right, as anyone on the board with any business sense knows. Performance matters, not excuses.

This is a serious issue, the board’s adolescent response notwithstanding. In play are millions of dollars of federal funding that the Office of Civil Rights could use to force the changes it decides upon rather than those that a sane, focused School Board might propose, were such a board available.

Instead of taunting the Department of Education, the board should agree on some response to the civil rights complaint, which is fundamentally that the admission game to criterion schools has been rigged, purposely or not. One obvious solution, as Orfield recommended, is to create more criterion schools to expand the opportunity to attend a good school. That, alone, won’t fix the problem of unfair admission standards, but it moves the ball ahead and could demonstrate good faith to federal officials.

But it doesn’t make sense to hold off just because the board is so wretchedly dysfunctional. That was the suggestion of Board Member Carl Paladino, who detests Orfield and who wants nothing to do with him or the Justice Department. The board’s dysfunction won’t change anytime soon and, indeed, Paladino plays a large role in producing it.

It is important to move on this matter now, and in as professional a way as this board can manage. It is important to the district’s funding levels, to its reputation for seriousness, to its ability to attract a talented superintendent and to the district’s underserved students. To the extent that it can’t even do this, Elia and the State Legislature need to take careful note. Something will have to change.