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Adding job amid layoffs stirs uproar; Williams' plan irks teachers, School Board

Buffalo School Superintendent James A. Williams wants to add a position to his central office staff just as more than 250 district employees are receiving layoff notices.

The juxtaposition is not sitting well with School Board members and those about to lose their jobs. Some parents also say the process for laying off employees -- including more than 100 teachers -- will devastate one of the city's premier academic programs.

"How can we possibly give any promotions, add any titles until we can reinstate our teachers?" asked an English teacher who just learned she will be laid off from one of the city's lowest-performing high schools.

"I can't believe someone could take a promotion when [104] teachers who work directly with children are going to get laid off. That's my shock and awe. If you can't name 10 kids who actually attend a Buffalo school, your job is not that important."

Initial reports from those familiar with Williams' plan indicated that he intended to establish a non-union position -- executive director for restart and compliance -- who would be responsible for overseeing the persistently lowest-achieving schools, including Lafayette High School, that outside groups will run.

Williams' plan did not sit well with several board members, who have criticized his doubling of exempt, or non-union, administrative staff in the past six years. He repeatedly has said that he does not need board approval to add such positions.

"We don't need more exempt positions. We need more people working. It seems like when people become exempt, they spend more time out of town than in town," Mary Ruth Kapsiak, the board's vice president for student achievement, said about travel by exempt employees. "How can you take care of a district from a distance?"

Williams planned to appoint Florence Krieter, who was removed last year as principal of Burgard High School under federal rules for the transformation model that Buffalo chose for the school. Those rules require removing the school's principal if that person had held that position for more than three years.

Since then, Krieter has been serving as director of secondary education in the school turnaround office, a union position.

A majority of the board opposed Williams' plan to appoint Krieter to what was believed last week to be a new exempt position.

Friday, the day the teacher layoff letters were mailed, Louis J. Petrucci, board president, said in an interview that Williams had agreed to make the job a union, rather than exempt, position and to post it.

"Since this person reports to the board, it should have a say in who is hired," he said.

Some, including parent leader Samuel Radford III, have challenged the idea of an administrative position -- whether union or non-union -- to oversee the outside groups that will operate some of the failing schools.

The state has said that those groups are to take the place of the superintendent in relation to the schools they run.

As of Tuesday, the new position had not been posted on the district's website.

In the meantime, the scores of layoff slips that were mailed out at the end of last week have renewed a debate within the district about teachers with specialized training.

The loudest outcry has come from City Honors, where about a quarter of the teachers with training for the school's International Baccalaureate program have been notified that they will be laid off.

"These guys aren't widgets," said David Cohen, president of the City Honors Foundation. "If you're going to do a special curriculum with special training, those teachers have to be protected; otherwise, you're going to have a revolving door."

Parents say many of the teachers stay late into the evening to help students with their schoolwork, advise clubs or coach sports.

"They have invested in us with the specialized training," said a City Honors teacher who teaches Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses and is about to get laid off. "And we have invested in relationships with the students that go above and beyond. We really love the kids and want to stay on. It really serves to destabilize."

While no clearly defined lobbying campaign has evolved, three possible strategies have been discussed to protect City Honors teachers:

Lobby state lawmakers to repeal the law requiring layoffs be made on the basis of "last in, first out."

Lobby the Buffalo Teachers Federation to sign an agreement with the district that would exempt teachers with specialized training from the "last in, first out" layoff policy. But Philip Rumore, union president, said Tuesday that a local agreement cannot alter a requirement laid out in state law.

Lobby state lawmakers to amend the charter school law to allow such public magnet schools as City Honors to convert to charters but maintain their admissions criteria. State law requires charter schools to admit students by a random lottery; City Honors admits students based on test scores and other criteria.

e-mail: mpasciak@buffnews.com

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