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Johns Hopkins wants to cancel pact on school turnarounds

Johns Hopkins University was promoted by many as a savior when the Buffalo School District agreed to pay more than $1 million last summer so it could help turn around struggling East and Lafayette high schools.

But just over a year later, the high-profile organization has informed the district that it intends to cancel its contract with the district, placing millions of dollars in school turnaround grants in jeopardy.

“We’ve exhausted all of our options,” said Charles Hiteshew, CEO of Johns Hopkins’ Talent Development Secondary, the university’s school-transformation organization.

Hiteshew said his staff was overwhelmed and overburdened by the administrative role of serving as de facto superintendent for both high schools.

“We’re really not well-suited for the role,” Hiteshew said. “We just spend a lot of time on governance issues.”

That does not leave sufficient time or resources for the actual work of improving the schools, he said.

Though some School Board members have previously expressed concern about Johns Hopkins’ work at both high schools, district leaders were alarmed when the university group suddenly announced its intention to pull out with a new school year beginning in a few short weeks.

Both East and Lafayette high schools were together awarded school turnaround grants of roughly $2 million this summer, contingent on Johns Hopkins continuing its role with the schools.

Interim Superintendent Donald A. Ogilvie and board leaders spoke with several top state education officials Wednesday afternoon in a rush to come up with alternatives, including the possibility of compelling Johns Hopkins to continue working with the district for the balance of the 2014-15 school year.

As an “educational partnership organization,” a specific role defined by the state, Johns Hopkins was responsible for oversight of principals, hirings, evaluations and other administrative and leadership responsibilities related to the governance of East and Lafayette.

That proved a difficult task for Johns Hopkins. While the organization has had a great deal of experience working as a turnaround consultant and partner for other struggling schools, Hiteshew said, it has never before been a lead administrator for a school.

Typically, he said, his organization helps craft and support a multiyear school improvement plan based on its own research-based model.

But the additional administrative work Johns Hopkins was expected to undertake made school improvement goals unattainable, he said.

“We just felt the framework was too unwieldy to get the traction we needed in even a two- to three-year framework,” he said.

Some board members responded that Johns Hopkins knew what it signed up for and should be doing a better job.

The university’s work attracted scrutiny during the new board’s first regular meeting in July, when the organization asked board members to hire half a dozen more full-time English and math coaches, plus additional staff for the middle school at Lafayette.

That price tag came out to an additional $770,000 in grants and operating money.

Since then, several board members, including Larry Quinn and Carl P. Paladino, have expressed skepticism about the value of the university group’s work and its ability to meet its academic targets, particularly at Lafayette, which has a high percentage of immigrant students.

“Change is necessary,” Quinn said.

Theresa A. Harris-Tigg, the board’s vice president of student achievement, said she participated in year-end reviews with all of the educational partnership organizations in the district, so Johns Hopkins’ request to pull out did not come as a total surprise.

“There were some concerns,” she said, offering a lukewarm assessment of the university’s work during this past year.

Last month, Johns Hopkins asked for permission to scale back its role so that it could focus more on providing support services to the school instead of full administrative oversight. State officials rejected that request.

Now that Johns Hopkins has expressed a desire to quit the district, however, district leaders say they will talk with Hiteshew on Friday to see if any alternative arrangement can be made with the university group, at least for the coming school year.

“To pull out after one year would not necessarily lead to chaos in those schools, but at least a high degree of uncertainty,” said board President James M. Sampson.

Ogilvie did not return calls seeking comment Wednesday.

Both Sampson and Harris-Tigg said that if no alternative arrangements can be made to provide support to East and Lafayette, and the district’s grant money remains in jeopardy, district leaders may try to compel Johns Hopkins to continue its work for the duration of the coming school year.

The original contract signed by Johns Hopkins last year and the renewal contract signed by the organization and by the district June 2 indicate that either party can terminate the contract with three months’ written notice. That would mean Johns Hopkins’ work could technically end by early November.

But the contract also says the agreement “may not be terminated, canceled or modified without the prior approval of the commissioner,” hence the district’s conversation with state Education Department leaders Wednesday.

“We’re willing to work with Johns Hopkins,” Harris-Tigg said, “but if they are insistent that they leave, then we will work something out.”