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Concerns spur call for takeover of Buffalo schools

The Buffalo parents who called Wednesday for a federal receiver to take over city schools are just the latest in a growing chorus of educators, elected officials and advocates ready to consider the bold step of bringing in an overseer because of deep skepticism that the district can fix itself.

Members on both sides of the Buffalo School Board divide, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Mayor Byron W. Brown have talked about a takeover in one form or another, with the concept of a receiver or some type of school “czar” being tossed out repeatedly by district leaders. The district’s state-appointed special educator says there may be no other option.

Now, some members of the District Parent Coordinating Council are ready to force the issue by filing complaints this week with the state and federal governments asking for a federal receiver or special master to run the school system. “Basically, we’re asking for some solutions. Somebody’s got to come in here and solve the problems,” said Samuel L. Radford III, president of the parent council.

Not everyone agrees that the district’s problems can be better solved by an outsider than by local leaders, but School Board President James M. Sampson said the continuing discussion about whether such a school czar should be appointed speaks to deep public concerns.

“They are frustrated the district has not been able to create more high-performing schools,” Sampson said of the parents. “A discussion on a special master or receiver should be taken seriously, and we should have a strong public discussion about that.”

Brown added Wednesday, “I think a new governance model is something people should be considering, absolutely.”

There is not one set formula for a takeover by a special master or receiver because it is such an unusual and extreme form of school district management. Whether local leaders would support such a concept would depend heavily on how the state fashions any receiver model and the extent of the powers. Although Radford and his parent group are asking for a federal receiver, many are waiting to see what ultimately will be endorsed by the governor.

Some board members, including Sampson, Theresa A. Harris-Tigg and Larry Quinn, have generally expressed support for some type of receivership, depending on how it is developed. Board member Carl P. Paladino has also expressed narrow support for the governor’s receivership concept.

Any takeover would be met with opposition from those who see it as abandonment of local control. “I think it’s a bad idea,” said board member Barbara A. Seals Nevergold. “It is something the governor has proposed, but whether a receiver would make a major difference, there aren’t many examples.”

Buffalo Teachers Federation President Philip Rumore said the idea that the state or federal government could suggest any model that would be more successful than local leadership is ridiculous. “They can’t even run themselves, and what do they know about education?” he said. “The people who can do the job are right here.”

Judy Elliott, the district’s distinguished educator, said there has been talk about a school czar taking over the Buffalo system since before she was appointed by the state Education Department in 2013 to help the district. The difference now is that the distinct may be out of other options.

“Right now, given the dynamics of the School Board and the lack of ability to move anything forward, … short of getting a stabler board that works well together, I don’t know what the other options are for the district at this point,” Elliott said.

Radford said Wednesday that he believes a receiver would control the district the same way the state-appointed Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority has controlled the City of Buffalo.

“The School Board would become advisory, and the authority will be in the hands of the federal receiver or special master,” Radford said.

No local education leaders interviewed Wednesday were aware of any case in which the U.S. Department of Education has appointed a receiver. “I would classify it as extraordinary, at least in my experience,” said Karl W. Kristoff, who serves as outside counsel for the Buffalo Public Schools.

State education officials also said they believe that the state is more than capable of coming up with a receiver model that would require no federal intervention.

“We do not believe that a federal takeover is necessary,” said department spokesman Jonathan Burman. “We have proposed a receivership model that would be New York-based.”

Last month, Cuomo asked the state Education Department to research how well a model is working in Massachusetts that allows independent school czars to take over schools.

The receivership model there is the most serious category under the Massachusetts accountability system. It allows the state to appoint individuals or nonprofit organizations that would take over individual schools or entire districts. The receiver would serve as a combined superintendent/board, overriding the local School Board.

Brown repeated his position Wednesday that he is open to “all options.”

Interim Superintendent Donald A. Ogilvie said it is premature to consider whether a receivership or mayoral-control model would work well in Buffalo.

“To comment on one or the other is purely speculative,” he said, “because there’s no legislation that establishes that.”

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