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District must move swiftly to resolve federal discrimination complaint

And, once again, the Buffalo School Board falls short of competence. And this time it wasn’t in its dealings with the State Education Department, which is bad enough, but with the federal government, via the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.

Worse, the heightened confrontation with Washington was both predictable and avoidable. All that was necessary was for the School Board to be serious about a serious issue – equal opportunity to attend the district’s criterion schools. The district fumbled.

Only one explanation could possibly offer any semi-legitimate excuse for the district’s failure: It lacked a permanent superintendent to lead the way. Even then, the district’s failure was intolerable, but with the hiring of Kriner Cash, that excuse is gone. Fortunately, Cash seems to understand the stakes.

“The OCR communique must be taken seriously, addressed thoughtfully and with urgency,” Cash wrote to board members, reminding them that the penalty could be the loss of millions of dollars of federal financial assistance.

This matter, like so many others in the Buffalo School District, was handled badly almost from the start. After parents complained about lack of access to the schools, the Office of Civil Rights responded and the district agreed to hire the UCLA/Civil Rights Project as part of a settlement.

The organization, headed by Gary Orfield, concluded that the system did, indeed, discriminate in its admissions processes and made several recommendations, among them to create more criterion schools to help expand the opportunity. The district was required to respond to the Office of Civil Rights by Aug. 15, and that’s where things started to fall apart.

At first, the district thought it would be a good idea simply not to respond at all, and instead ask for more time. Thankfully, it dropped that idea and responded, but in a way that drew immediate criticism for its inadequacy. Among the critics was Samuel L. Radford, president of the District Parent Coordinating Council. “My hope is that the Office of Civil Rights rejects this,” he said last month. “It falls short. I don’t think they took it seriously enough.”

Earlier this month, he got his wish. The OCR rejected the proposal, saying it failed to deal adequately with all of Orfield’s recommendations. The district’s plan, approved in an 8-1 vote, relied heavily on programs aiming to better prepare students for the city’s criterion schools and included plans for several schools that were already in the works. “They all just wanted to go forward with the plans they already had for the district,” Radford said.

The district now has until Tuesday to respond and, fortunately for parents, students, teachers and taxpayers, Cash appears to be taking the matter seriously. The question is whether the School Board will become similarly serious. If it doesn’t, it risks a heavy-handed response from the Office of Civil Rights. Given the divisions and hardheadedness of many board members, though, even that is not enough to predict success.

Still, the rules of the game have changed. A new law allowing for receivership of failing schools and the high expectations of the state’s new education commissioner, MaryEllen Elia, with whom Cash is closely aligned, may push the district into action. It should happen.