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SCHOOL BOARD MUST RESPOND TO DISTURBING NEW REPORTS CITY CAN'T AFFORD LESS THAN FUNDAMENTAL CHANGE

THERE'S THE anecdotal evidence from secondary teachers who complain that elementary-school students come to them unprepared, and from employers and colleges who say the same thing about high-school graduates.

There are the complaints from parents threatening to move to the suburbs to find quality education.

There are 10 different analyses over the past 10 years -- from the state comptroller, the state Education Department and others -- all calling for improvement.

And now, there are two exhaustive probes -- one by local business interests, the other by The Buffalo News -- reaffirming the urgent need to fix Buffalo's troubled public schools and, equally important, suggesting specific remedies.

How much more evidence and incentive does this community need before demanding improvement?

Appearing only days after the private-sector report criticized the school system for poor management and a lack of vision, the summary of a year-long News probe revealed the same problems and graphically detailed their impact.

Poor management has left schools without needed supplies, direction or public confidence while the district drowns in its own inertia.

Yet, for all the problems, what stood out clearly in The News series this week was that the district has a lot to build on -- if officials act before it's too late.

For example, a quality teaching staff provides a fundamental building block that can't be squandered.

The district also has many schools that are working well. School 90, surrounded by poverty at Fillmore Avenue and Genesee Street, has raised test scores and improved pupil performance simply by changing its approach to education.

That and other other successes can be
replicated across the district -- provided there is the leadership to demand results.

And where more resources are needed, both The News series and the Buffalo Financial Plan Commission report outlined countless avenues for recapturing money through efficiencies, even though City Hall still will have to do more.

But at this point, the reports are just words on paper and the good intentions are just platitudes. The district is at a pivot point, its most critical since the start of the desegregation effort two decades ago.

The primary responsibility for turning things around rests with the elected Board of Education. Out of $188.5 million worth of economies the private-sector report recommended over the next five years, nearly $83 million can be implemented by the board itself, without any help from unions or the courts. That will be a key test.

But effective board leadership means more than just implementing specific proposals. It means establishing a vision for the district, a game plan for education, and then making sure the administration keeps the school system on track.

That's where the board has failed in the recent past.

With several new members, the board itself also is at a pivotal point.

Several members are parent activists or professional educators. If the parent members become so bogged down in parochial issues, or the educators focus on pedagogical minutiae, Buffalo's schools will continue to flounder while the board gets lost in micromanagement.

On the other hand, the board can use these analyses to redefine its role and take charge of educational policy. If it does, 10 years from now Buffalo won't be looking back on these two latest reports and wondering why nothing changed when it was so obvious big change was needed.

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