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Education leaders see Ken-Ton boycott threat as a mistake

Thousands of parents statewide had their children refuse to take state assessments last year as part of an “opt-out movement.” But what if a whole district opted out?

That’s now a possibility in the Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda district. But state education officials have threatened the elected School Board there with removal if it goes forward with a boycott of standardized testing in grades three through eight.

There has been a lot of angry rhetoric from teachers and some parents lately about what they deem an overreliance on “high-stakes testing.” Education leaders locally urged restraint.

“I just think they ought to pause, take a deep breath, wait to see what happens until next Tuesday,” said Robert M. Bennett, chancellor emeritus of the state Board of Regents, referring to the end of state budget negotiations. “I can’t find a circumstance under which they could legitimately refuse to administer the state assessments. And if they do, then they should be removed.”

That threat has already been made, last week by a top state education official.

Cosimo Tangorra, the deputy commissioner in the Office of P-12 Education, said he was prepared to initiate removal of the board if it moved forward with the proposals, according to an email dated March 19.

“It has come to my attention that your board is considering a resolution to refuse to administer the 3-8 assessments,” Tangorra wrote in an email to Ken-Ton Superintendent Dawn Mirand that was obtained by The Buffalo News. “Please inform them that we have a letter of removal drafted and that we will begin removal proceedings if they choose to pass such a resolution.”

School Board President Bob Dana, who sponsored the proposals, admitted he is worried about that prospect, but prepared to accept it.

“It wouldn’t make me happy to lose my seat,” Dana said. “A number of people have voted to put me here and I’ve tried to do a good job. Not everyone’s going to agree with everything that took place. I expect that.”

There is little precedence for the state education commissioner to remove an entire board from power. The only recent example is the Roosevelt school system in Nassau County, which was taken over by the state in 2002 for unsafe conditions and a series of other violations of state and federal law.

State Education Department spokeswoman Jeanne Beattie pointed to Section 306 of state education law, which gives the education commissioner the power to remove school officers from office and withhold public money. Ken-Ton stands to lose about $51 million in state aid.

The Ken-Ton board wants Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to release state aid information he is “holding hostage” in an effort to pressure the State Legislature to pass his aggressive public school agenda. It also wants “a fair and equitable state aid funding formula” and an end to the Gap Elimination Adjustment, a tool instituted five years ago to help the state balance its budget. Unless those demands are met, it may refuse to administer the tests.

Ken-Ton’s action appears to have reverberated across the state. The Comsewogue School Board, on Long Island, will consider a similar boycott of testing when it meets Thursday, according to the district’s teachers’ union. The Fairport School Board, outside Rochester, also has considered a boycott.

“The state tests are required by the federal government, are a required part of the instructional program, and there is no provision in law or regulation for a school official to refuse to administer the tests or for a parent to refuse the tests,” Beattie said by email.

She pointed to a speech recently given by Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch to the New York State Council of School Superintendents.

“I believe that test refusal is a terrible mistake because it eliminates important information about how our kids are doing,” Tisch said. “Why on earth would you not want to know whether your child is on track for success in the fifth grade or success in college? Why would you not want to know how your child and your school are doing compared to other children in the district, region and state?”

Besides the ouster of its School Board, Bennett said Ken-Ton also is risking the loss of Title I aid, which is federally funded. The state is bound by the federal laws that require testing.

“The feds don’t mess around with this stuff, so this is very bad behavior on their part,” he said of the Ken-Ton board.

Bennett advised Ken-Ton to stand down. In a game of chicken between the state and Ken-Ton, Bennett said there’s no question Ken-Ton would blink first.

“They’re going to lose big time,” he said. “I would advise them to not pass this ... because the letter to initiate removal is drafted already.”