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Trigger law to turn around schools draws board member's critique

If the state passes a law that gives parents the power to trigger turnarounds at low-performing schools, one member of the Buffalo Board of Education believes that parents of chronically absent children should have no say in the decision.

"You can't say that 'the school is failing my child' if your child is only attending 60 percent of the classes," said at-large member John B. Licata.

The pros and cons of a proposed "parent trigger" law were debated Wednesday in City Hall.

The Common Council's Education Committee heard from the leaders of two reform groups, a School Board member and an associate superintendent on a plan that would give parents more clout than ever before to implement change.

Advocates said the bill would give parents who have children in persistently low-achieving schools the ability to choose a federal intervention model.

If 55 percent of parents at a given school sign a petition, the changes could range from converting the school to a charter, closing the school and transfering students to higher performing facilities, replacing the principal and some staff, or a less drastic model that would keep the principal.

Hannya Boulos, executive director of Buffalo ReformED, a group that has banded together with parents to try to build support for the law, told lawmakers the change would "equalize the power structure" in the school district. "Parents currently don't have any real legal authority to make changes at the building levels in their schools," she said. "This bill allows them to do that by giving them essentially bargaining power."

The measure would give parents leverage to press for smaller changes short of a complete school overhaul, Boulos added. For example, parents could push for longer school days. Associate Superintendent Will Keresztes said "all options" must be considered for improving low-performing schools. "The school district should consider any means that will increase parental involvement in the school turnaround process," Keresztes told the Council panel.

He said the goal is to improve student achievement and turn around troubled schools, adding that Superintendent James A. Williams is receptive to discussing all ideas.

But Licata said he believes any trigger law should have a clause that bars parents of students who regularly miss classes from having a vote in turnaround initiatives. While Licata conceded that his concept is "a little radical," he argued that parents can't claim the school district is failing their child if the student has high absenteeism. "You can't teach an empty chair. It just doesn't work," Licata said.

Any new provision should specify that only parents whose children attend 90 percent of their classes would be eligible to sign petitions, Licata said.

Keresztes said 54 percent of all freshman high school students at persistently low-performing schools have "chronic absence" problems. What's more, 43 percent of kindergarten students also have chronic attendance problems.

Poor classroom environments can cause high absenteeism, countered Samuel L. Radford III, vice president of the District Parent Coordinating Council. Radford said it would be unfair to lay all the blame for chronic absenteeism on parents or students.

Delaware Council Member Michael J. LoCurto said mandating changes in troubled schools won't necessarily solve the larger problems that in some instances could be rooted in the district's administration.

Education Committee Chairman Demone A. Smith of Masten is co-sponsoring a resolution with South Council Member Michael P. Kearns that supports the proposed state law.