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BUFFALO CAN'T LET SCHOOLS KEEP FAILING AT MANAGEMENT MAKE INTERNAL REFORM QUICK AND SUBSTANTIVE

TWO POINTS stand out in the in-depth critique of the troubled Buffalo Public Schools by a private-sector commission.

One is that a district that has lived off of the glory of a lauded magnet-school program begun years ago is floundering as a direct result of poor management.

The other is that even if dynamic new leadership emerges to implement all 34 of the commission's recommendations over the next five years, the schools will still wind up $51 million in the red.

Both citizens and officials must respond -- quickly.

But it will be hard to muster any kind of backing for greater support of the school system until the public is sure the district -- including both administrators and teachers -- has done all it can to help itself.

The report from the Buffalo Financial Plan Commission makes it clear there's a long way to go.

The analysis portrays a district operating on inertia at a time when decisive leadership is needed for the survival of any kind of educational quality.

Neither the board nor the staff can ignore this plan's possibilities for reform.

One obvious example is the waste of both talent and money in having secondary teachers acting as lunchroom monitors, a task many no doubt hate. It's tantamount to having police officers doing clerical work, a practice the city has changed. But instead of learning from the city, the School Board continues this unaffordable practice.

The commission projects the district could save $48 million over the next five years just by having teachers spend more time in the classroom. Whether feasible or not for all
teachers, it's the type of change that needs to be explored. But school officials have yet to take the initiative.

Another "win-win" type of change would pay employees a bonus for forgoing health insurance if they already are covered through a spouse. That could save $790,000 per year but has yet to be tried.

The report makes clear that such inefficiencies and missed opportunities are rampant. They result not so much from willful neglect as from the fact that the district has no real management system.

Instead, the system bungles along from crisis to crisis. In a quote that best sums up the district's operating style, the commission concluded that "the bureaucracy tends to lead the administration rather than the other way around."

And it's not so much a case of being administratively top-heavy. More critical than the number of central-office and school administrators are the "disjointed" management system that isolates the schools from downtown, the lack of adequate internal data with which to make decisions and an "overall resistance to change."

That's an indictment of top management and of the School Board that directs it.

Can the district improve? History doesn't offer much hope, despite administration claims of innovation. The commission found that over the past decade studies from various outside analysts have made 84 major recommendations. Of those, only five have been substantially addressed.

That's a track record that indicates nothing will happen to these new recommendations, either, unless the public, city officials and new School Board members demand it.

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