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Buffalo schools cited as case study for greater state intervention

Buffalo Public Schools have become the poster child for “struggling schools” in New York State that may require more drastic state intervention, the Board of Regents says in a letter to the Cuomo administration.

“Under the law as it exists now, we have done everything that is humanly possible, against a lot of odds,” Chancellor Merryl H. Tisch said Wednesday regarding the letter. “And Buffalo is a perfect example.”

The letter, signed by Tisch and Acting Commissioner Elizabeth R. Berlin, recommends that the governor push legislation that would allow the state to remove and replace school boards in long-troubled school districts, like Buffalo, including the possible appointment of a “school czar.”

“We agree with the governor that if these schools cannot be made to perform, they must be closed and replaced by institutions that are up to the task of ensuring that students graduate from school college- and career-ready,” the letter states.

Tisch added Wednesday that the letter was meant to encourage the governor and the State Legislature to take bold action on a list of critical education issues.

“It’s time that someone called the question, and what we do in this letter is call the question,” she said. “It’s a smorgasbord of choices. Choose. But complacency around failure is not to be tolerated.”

Specifically, the letter asks that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo embrace proposed legislation that would authorize the Board of Regents and the education commissioner to put school districts into three levels of academic and/or fiscal restructuring status, which would include support to help get districts “on track” and remove them from state oversight.

However, the legislation also would create an independent review team for the district that would report to the Board of Regents. If matters were deemed dire enough, the Regents would then have the power to dismantle a local school board and replace it with a Regents-appointed Education Oversight Board.

Finally, the letter recommends that the governor and the State Legislature consider implementing a model similar to one adopted in Massachusetts in 2010 that would allow the state to appoint a “receiver” or “school czar” to a school district. That person would wield tremendous authority over a district, carrying the authority of both a superintendent and school board.

Tisch said the idea of appointing a school czar would give the state the ability “to go beyond what we’ve done in Buffalo, which is as far as we can take it.”

Unlike a direct state takeover, which Tisch said the Board of Regents has no great interest in, the idea of appointing a district receiver with broad authority to bypass existing work rules and bureaucracy holds tremendous appeal.

State officials pointed to the Lawrence school district in Massachusetts, where in 2012 school czar Jeff Riley slashed central office administrators, mandated longer school days, bypassed union work rules, and gave local schools more flexibility to enact their own turnaround plans.

The result so far has been higher test scores and graduation rates, as well as the exodus of many mid-level teachers, ongoing worries among those who remain, and angry union leaders.

Tisch said drastic changes like these may be “painful,” but after a long history of district failure, they may be the only remedies left. State education officials also said that imposing more serious consequences on districts may drive them to make necessary changes they would otherwise avoid.

The Regents letter devotes several paragraphs outlining the strategies the state already has used with the Buffalo district to improve academic achievement in recent years, including the most recent state demand that the district either phase out or establish new innovative programs at its four “out of time” schools.

But the letter also states that the current tools used by the state Education Department do not necessarily ensure “that low-performing schools will not be replaced by other schools that are almost equally low-performing.”

While some Buffalo schools have seen significant improvement in recent years, others have remained consistently low performers despite turnaround plans assisted by millions in federal grant money. The district’s graduation rate has remained at 56 percent over the last two years, with 12 percent to 13 percent of students in grades three through eight considered proficient in English or math.

The letter from the Board of Regents states, “Our experience has been that while we have used the full authority available to the department to address the issue of struggling schools, the tools available to the department need to be expanded so that systemic conditions in districts that result in struggling schools can be fixed.”

The letter was written in response to a Dec. 18 request by Jim Malatras, a top Cuomo aide, asking that the board provide feedback to the governor regarding how it recommends he address “critical issues in education.”

The response letter covered many different education issues and promoted the work already done by the state Education Department and the Board of Regents. It also pushed the board’s 2014 legislative agenda, including the “Regents Priority Bill on Support and Intervention for Chronically Underperforming Schools” that recommends the three-level system for district restructuring.

That legislative item has been recommended by the Board of Regents for the past three years but failed to gain support.