A survey about Buffalo Public Schools that Mayor Masiello has sent to 18,000 city voters has resulted in 650 responses so far, and some questions about what the mayor hopes to accomplish with the results.
The four-page, 17-question survey began going out Sept. 7. The recipients were the Buffalo residents who had voted in the last three years in general elections and in Buffalo Board of Education elections.
A cover letter from the mayor states that "over the past year, serious questions have been raised with regard to the overall management of our city's public schools. . . . While we know there are many issues that concern our citizens relative to our public schools, we cannot presume to know every concern without your direct input."
The letter asks respondents to return the survey to the mayor's office by Oct. 15. The mayor's office sent a copy of the survey to members of the Buffalo Board of Education but did not consult with the board on its contents.
"One of the issues on the questionnaire," Masiello said, "deals with the public's attitudes toward neighborhood schools, but that's just one aspect. We're at a crossroads to find out what the public's perception is of our schools. I want to complete a data base of information about our city that will help us make decisions to go forward."
One of the questions asks respondents to rate the importance of various factors -- including school location and quality -- in their decisions about school choice. Other questions ask respondents:
For their opinions on the use of the neighborhood school concept for drawing school boundaries.
Whether they think quality neighborhood schools and aggressive neighborhood revitalization would attract more families and stabilize neighborhoods.
Whether they support the use of school assignments to help increase student diversity.
A 5 percent response rate of 900 would be average for such a broad-based survey, said Christopher Spara, marketing research manager at Goldhaber Research Associates Inc. here.
"For something like this, it would probably be higher, because this is a hot topic," Spara said.
The mayor's staff designed the survey, said Eva Hassett, the city commissioner for finance and administration who is also Masiello's special liaison to the Buffalo School District. The mayor's office will share the results with the district, she said.
"Neighborhood schools would be such a huge change in the character of the district," she said. "We want people's feedback at this moment. We'll share our information with anyone."
In July, the mayor issued a call for a return to neighborhood schools and said he expected the School Board to spend the next six months developing a plan to do so. He also expected the board to implement that plan within two or three years. The board is considering the mayor's proposal but does not yet know when or if it will develop a plan.
The board's Program Committee -- which deals with instruction and curriculum -- met Tuesday to talk about neighborhood schools. Out of that meeting came the realization that the board and the city need better data on the makeup of the schools and the city's demographics before they can proceed, board President Paul Buchanan said.
Marion Canedo, the newly appointed associate superintendent for instruction, is now compiling information on school populations, how many children walk or ride buses, and other subjects.
The committee will also recommend to the board Wednesday that a panel of community leaders, parents and educators be created to address school choice, including neighborhood schools.
East District Board Member Marlies A. Wesolowski, who heads the committee, said after reviewing the survey her main concern "is we have to be very careful about how we engage the public in this discussion. Just talking about neighborhood schools in some districts without putting them in context could be very divisive."
For some, Ms. Wesolowski said, the appeal of a neighborhood school "has nothing to do with the quality of the program. It has more to do with race."
Jan Peters, the Central District School Board representative, questioned Masiello's motives in view of what she termed his simplistic call for neighborhood schools.
"I think the focus of the survey is clear," Ms. Peters said. "He's looking for his support for his concept of neighborhood schools without identifying what that concept is. He's trading on that assumption that everyone knows what a neighborhood school is because it hearkens back to the days when he was a boy."
Two activist parents also expressed doubt about how effective the survey would be.
"I had mixed feelings about sending it back in because it does seem to be something that will feed his (Masiello's) agenda," said Barbara Rowe. If the district wants to better respond to parents on school choice, it could start by improving the way it deals with parents trying to get information about magnet schools and other programs, Ms. Rowe said.
Lloyd J. Hargrave, who has served on a number of district committees, said he was unimpressed because many of the questions were too vague.
"How do you measure the 'quality of education'?" Hargrave asked, referring to one of the factors parents were asked to rank. "All most parents know about is what affects them and their children. I guess my biggest question is, to what end is the survey, and what are we going to do with it? If the purpose of the survey is to gauge the superintendent and the School Board, say so."