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Dismay expressed on Buffalo front over state’s school takeover model

Buffalo School District leaders say they’re disappointed with the outside takeover model that could be imposed on struggling schools. Some leaders say the model accepted by the State Legislature goes too far, while others contend it doesn’t go nearly far enough.

Interim Superintendent Donald A. Ogilvie said Tuesday that the receivership model doesn’t look all that different from prior state reform efforts that push money toward schools in exchange for dramatic school leadership changes and outside intervention.

“We’ve been plowing this furrow for a long time,” Ogilvie said. “Everything has already been done. It doesn’t seem to be bold, and it doesn’t seem to be innovative.”

He and members of the School Board majority described the new receivership model as a very diluted form of the original concept, which could apply to entire districts and empower a receiver with broad and unilateral authority. Five Buffalo schools would be most immediately affected by the new policy, but a much higher number could follow within the next few years.

Board President James M. Sampson said that many Buffalo schools ultimately may wind up with a host of different receivers, all of whom would report to the state, resulting in a chaotic “splintering” effect for the district.

“Is having 10 different receivers better than having one receiver for the district?” he asked.

Other board members believe that the receivership model asks for too much to be done in too narrow a time frame. Barbara A. Seals Nevergold pointed out that the state would require the affected schools to develop and immediately implement community school models that would be judged after only one school year. If schools don’t show “demonstrable progress,” an outside receiver would step in. “The time frames … are just unrealistic,” she said.

Moreover, Nevergold said, if outside receivers are unsuccessful, they could be fired and replaced every two years, leading to even more school instability. “That doesn’t create sustainability,” she said.

Buffalo Teachers Federation President Philip Rumore said it’s wrong to target long-troubled schools for receivership when it’s the state that has forced these same schools to teach students without adequate resources, funding or support. “It’s like blaming the victim,” Rumore said. “It’s typical of the idiocy that’s coming out of Albany.”

Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes and Sean M. Ryan, Democratic members of the Assembly from Buffalo, emphasized that the state is finally putting funding behind a community schools model that should finally give schools the resources they need to make a difference – something that will hopefully make an outside receiver unnecessary. Everything from health services to after-school services would be eligible for additional state aid in targeted schools. Moreover, they said, community stakeholders would have more say in framing a turnaround plan.

“If you really want to turn around the schools, you need community buy-in,” said Peoples-Stokes, who recently submitted separate legislation to provide more funding for a community school model.

Ryan echoed the belief that the receivership model provides more “holistic” support for children in urban school districts.

“There’s an acknowledgement that what they need is more than academic,” he said.

Buffalo Elementary School of Technology, Futures Preparatory School, West Hertel Academy, and Burgard and South Park high schools would be the first local schools, among 27 statewide, to fall under the new turnaround strategy, though many more Buffalo public schools would be likely to follow in succeeding years.

These schools would have access to a pot of $75 million to immediately develop a community school plan in conjunction with community stakeholders and other supporting organizations. The school district also would have greater powers to force unions to reach new, school-specific arrangements regarding the hiring and firing of school staff, the length of the school day, curriculum changes and teacher training. Although the district couldn’t unilaterally override union contract provisions in these areas, an arbitrator could step in and impose terms if both sides do not reach an agreement.

If a school does not show “demonstrable progress” after one year, the district would be forced to name an outside receiver to take over the school. The receiver could be an individual, a nonprofit organization or another school district. If the district does not name a receiver that is sanctioned by the state Education Department, then the state would appoint one. The receiver would have two full years to demonstrate progress, according to state officials.