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State takeover of city schools hinted Legislators berate leadership, push parent, voter empowerment

Assemblyman Sam Hoyt is exploring what it would take for the state to take over the Buffalo Public Schools, a system whose leadership he says has failed its students.

The Buffalo Democrat joins a number of people -- now extending into the State Legislature -- who have lost faith in the leadership of the district and the Board of Education and are looking for ways to bring about meaningful change.

Assemblywoman Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes, D-Buffalo, plans to introduce a bill next week that would enable a majority of parents at any one school to require the district to turn it into a charter, close it, replace half the staff or implement another major turnaround plan.

Peoples-Stokes also plans to introduce a bill next week to require voter approval of the Buffalo school budget, similar to what is done in the suburbs.

Hoyt said Tuesday that he is researching the possibility of a state takeover of the district.

"I am fed up with the leadership in the district and the leadership of the board," Hoyt wrote in an e-mail. "I believe that both the superintendent and the board have shown an inability to seriously address the crisis facing our inner-city youth."

In Buffalo, Hoyt had harsh words for Superintendent James A. Williams and the board.

The assemblyman criticized Williams for not attending a meeting last week in Buffalo attended by Senior Deputy Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. and for withholding key information from the board.

"The way Williams is acting is as if he is challenging his bosses (the board) to fire him," Hoyt wrote. "Given that he signed a contract extension not too long ago, and I suspect that it has a generous parachute clause, being terminated would prove very profitable for him."

Williams' contract, which was extended in June 2010, provides him with six months' pay if the board fires him. He makes $220,000 a year.

A state takeover of the Buffalo Public Schools would require an act of the Legislature, which has happened only once in the state's history.

In 2002, poor student performance, along with financial problems, prompted the state to take over the 2,800-student Roosevelt School District in Nassau County on Long Island -- a district less than one-tenth the size of the Buffalo Public Schools.

The Roosevelt superintendent and the School Board were removed and replaced by board members and a superintendent selected by the state Board of Regents. Gradually, elected board members have been phased back in; only one state appointee now remains on the board.

Peoples-Stokes is focusing her proposed legislation on structural reforms promoted by Buffalo's District Parent Coordinating Council.

"I think it's incumbent upon us as leaders to support parental efforts," she said. "After all, it is their children we are budgeting multiple millions of dollars for on a regular basis."

Every suburban school district in the state must get voter approval each year for its budget. But the state's "Big Five" urban districts -- which do not levy their own taxes -- need approval only from their own school boards to adopt their budgets.

Meanwhile, Peoples-Stokes was among 200 people who attended an "education stakeholder's meeting" Tuesday in the Community Action Organization -- John F. Kennedy Community Center, 114 Hickory St., aimed at exploring ways to help parents become advocates for their children's education.

The forum was sponsored by a newly formed local education coalition of representatives from VOICE-Buffalo, Alliance for Quality Education, Buffalo ReformED and others. The meeting featured a screening of a film that documented coalition-building efforts by parents in New York City that led to comprehensive reforms at some persistently low-achieving schools over a 15-year period.

After the screening, those attending the meeting participated in a brief question-and-answer session with Richard Gray of the Annenberg Institute, who appeared via Skype. The Annenberg Institute has been a resource and advocate for New York City parents seeking reforms in their neighborhood schools, and the organizers of Tuesday's meeting are hopeful that success could be duplicated in Buffalo.

"The goal of this meeting is to really begin a conversation amongst groups who already are focused on the same goal. Every single one of these groups is concerned about our children's future," said Lisa Crapnell, chairwoman of the education task force for NOAH and VOICE-Buffalo, two religious-based community action groups.

"Every one of the groups recognizes that parents have more power than they've ever been given credit for, and so we all see that the common goal is empowering parents to educate our children," Crapnell added, noting that NOAH and VOICE-Buffalo have expertise in grass-roots organizing.

Samuel L. Radford III, vice president of the parent group District Coordinating Council, who also attended Tuesday's forum, announced that a planned forum next Tuesday will take place at 5 p.m. in the Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts, 450 Masten Ave.

His group also is pushing for what's known as a "parent trigger" law, which would enable parents at any low-performing school to petition to force the district to implement one of the four turnaround models outlined by the federal government.

"It gives the authority in making the best choice for schooling back to the parents," Campos said. "We see parents as the only stakeholder in the district that does not have a conflict of interest in putting students first. They will make schools, in fact, what are best for students instead of what are best for adults." Campos said she talked with people involved in similar efforts in other states, including California, that have already adopted a parent trigger law.

Buffalo ReformED, which began about two years ago with a focus on charter schools, has shifted its focus in recent months to working with Buffalo's parent group to provide support for whatever efforts the parents deem important, including a parent trigger law.

If the parent trigger legislation becomes law, Campos said, her group will provide advocacy and support for parents as they try to implement it.

"We'll make sure a support system exists to make sure this policy is effective," she said. "We're not going to leave parents to go at it alone."

Buffalo ReformED is one of several groups that have recently formed what they're billing as a "students first" education reform coalition that also includes the District Parent Coordinating Council, the Alliance for Quality Education, VOICE-Buffalo and the Community Action Organization.

"This is the reason why I think Buffalo is in a unique position to do something never before done in urban education -- to have them all at the table to talk about how to support the parents," Radford said.

That sort of collaboration is unusual. Across the country, for instance, communities generally find a clear division between teachers union-backed groups such as the Alliance for Quality Education and groups supportive of charter schools, such as Buffalo ReformED.

"The most significant thing about us coming together is that we've all done education reform for different agendas," Campos said. "Now we're coming together under a 'students first' reform agenda that prioritizes students above all else."

With Buffalo needing to submit turnaround plans for nine of its failing schools in the next two weeks, the need for effective collaboration has taken on a sense of urgency, some observers say.

"We realize it's a state of emergency for kids in Buffalo. I'm not sure what other alarm we're waiting to sound, because I've heard every single one of them," said Chy'Nel Lee, lead organizer for the Alliance for Quality Education. "Hell has officially frozen over in Buffalo. This time, it's strictly about the kids."

News Staff Reporter Harold McNeil contributed to this report.

e-mail: mpasciak@buffnews.com

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