By Peter Simon
As I consider the challenges facing Buffalo School Superintendent Kriner Cash, I remember a story I wrote in 1995 – more than 20 years ago – about the dismal state of the Cleveland public schools.
The district had a huge fiscal deficit, miserable academic outcomes and little public support. Voters had approved a property tax hike for the schools just once in the previous 25 years. When I asked about the presence of middle-class students, faces went blank.
“Most of the people left in the Cleveland schools can’t find a way out,” said the executive director of an agency that helped the school district seek grants. “They’re stuck.”
The Buffalo Public Schools were already struggling mightily, and the story resounded with this warning to local school officials: Get your act together while you still can, or – like Cleveland – tumble to the very depths.
The 20 years since the Cleveland story have been rough ones for the Buffalo schools. Their act is not together. Their problems and challenges are enormous.
But Buffalo has something that was missing in Cleveland, something for Cash to grab on to and work with: a community still clinging to determination and hope. We’re making it happen on the long-barren waterfront. Could the city schools be next?
Finally, Cash presents a sense of direction and purpose. He gets it.
That’s why the most striking thing about the “New Educational Bargain” – his blueprint for reform – is that despite its name, it contains little if anything that’s new.
Previous Buffalo superintendents had remarkably similar goals – even if they weren’t coordinated and clearly packaged – but made scant progress in attaining them. So the reform plan, long overdue, writes itself.
The need to emphasize reading and math in the early grades, improve low-performing high schools and work with families on nutrition, recreation and health issues is not startling; those are necessary elements for city schools.
So, Cash says, are increasing instructional time, making sure graduates are prepared to succeed at work or in college, and – central to the whole package – working out a long-overdue contract with the Buffalo Teachers Federation.
The BTF is led by Philip Rumore, who showed the courage of his convictions in 2000 by spending eight days in jail for leading a one-day teachers strike in violation of a court order.
“He was polite to everyone,” said the superintendent of the Erie County Correctional Facility. “A very nice man.”
And, a very tough negotiator. Several of Cash’s key initiatives need BTF agreement. And that would really be new.
Peter Simon is a retired Buffalo News education reporter.