Share this article

print logo

Johns Hopkins role alive as option for 2 failing high schools

The Buffalo School District may be able to find a way to keep Johns Hopkins University as the leader of Lafayette and East high schools.

But it would likely cost the district a fortune – as much as $7 million – since the district would lose its federal grant money and still be on the hook for also partnering its two struggling high schools with Erie 1 Board of Cooperative Educational Services.

“It’s a challenge,” said Superintendent Pamela C. Brown, “but it’s not something that’s impossible.”

Ever since State Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. issued his directive July 10 requiring the district to give BOCES a role in the turnaround of Lafayette and East, school leaders have been desperate to figure out what they have to do and how they can pay for it.

School officials, board members, teachers and union representatives met with top state Education Department administrators for much of Thursday in Buffalo until the School Board convened its special meeting at 4 p.m.

Many of these stakeholders said they were happy with Johns Hopkins’ preliminary work to turn around Lafayette and East, and said they would prefer that the university be allowed to continue that role in the next school year.

BOCES, primarily a regional provider of career and vocational courses to suburban school districts, is not an experienced school-turnaround organization, they said. Johns Hopkins is.

That leaves the Buffalo Public Schools in a fix.

King, in his July 10 letter, denied both schools millions of dollars in federal grant money that would have been spent to fund Johns Hopkins as the lead “educational partnership organization” for Lafayette and East.

If the district had received the state’s blessing to contract with Johns Hopkins, the university essentially would have been given the powers of the superintendent to make academic programming decisions at both high schools. As the lead turnaround organization, it would be answerable only to the School Board for its recommendations and decisions regarding staffing, budgeting, scheduling, tenure, discipline and staff development.

Most important, the district would have received all the federal money it needed to pay Johns Hopkins for its work.

Thursday, in a series of private meetings that started at 9 a.m. at United Way headquarters on Delaware Avenue, school leaders said they were told by state officials that they can continue to work with Johns Hopkins if they wish. But they still must allow any students at Lafayette and East to take courses at BOCES, and they still have to find a way to pay for it.

Chief Financial Officer Barbara J. Smith said that having Johns Hopkins continue in its original role, without any changes, would cost the district $3.6 million.

In addition, the district would have to pay BOCES between an estimated $859,000 and $3.5 million in tuition to have BOCES provide vocational courses to its students, Smith said.

District officials said they may be able to “redirect” some allocations of grant money to offset this cost, but no one had an answer to where all the money would come from.

King had informed Brown that the district had only two choices: allow Lafayette and East students to take BOCES courses, or have BOCES serve as the lead supervisor of the schools in the same role Johns Hopkins was supposed to fill.

District administrators, principals, teachers and board members expressed a strong desire to continue partnering with Johns Hopkins and praised their preliminary work this past school year.

As part of that discussion, several board members expressed continuing concern that the central administration was unable to put together a plan that could be approved by the state for two to three years in a row for East and Lafayette, respectively.

Board member James M. Sampson circulated a timeline from Buffalo ReformED that detailed the many failures of the district to submit an acceptable plan year after year. The Buffalo News vetted and adjusted the timeline after reviewing it with the state Education Department.

In Thursday’s conversations with state officials, including Deputy Commissioner Ken Slentz and Assistant Commissioner Ira Schwartz, board members asked the Department of Education to detail in writing what mistakes were made.

Buffalo Teachers Federation President Philip Rumore said it’s his belief that state officials withheld constructive feedback on the district’s turnaround plans for Lafayette and East because it wanted the district to fail and be subjected to state edict.

“If the state really wanted the district to get the grants, they’d tell them exactly what was wrong and how to fix it,” he said. “They didn’t do that.”

Community meetings will be held Monday and Wednesday at Lafayette and East before the School Board meets on July 31 to approve a plan.

For much more on Thursday’s board meeting, visit the School Zone blog at email: