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Buffalo School Board’s structure criticized as unconstitutional

Buffalo parent activist Samuel L. Radford III has filed complaints with city, state and federal agencies arguing that the current structure of the Buffalo School Board is unconstitutional.

In the complaints, which he has filed on behalf of another parent who works in his office, Radford argues that the six district seats on the nine-member board are not only antiquated, but also deprive city parents of equal representation under the law. Some board members represent many schools, some represent comparatively few, and – because of the district’s choice program – some don’t represent schools that the children of their constituents actually attend, he said.

“I should be able to hold the person I voted for accountable,” said Radford, president of the District Parent Coordinating Council. “Why should a member of the Buffalo Board of Education have a different process? This thing is not fair across the board.”

The timing of these legal complaints is not coincidental. They come amid disputes over district leadership and talk of alternative governance structures for the district, including mayoral control and state receivership. Radford said that makes the time ripe to look at what he considers a fundamental voter inequity.

The complaints argue several main points:

• The current board configuration – three at-large seats and six district seats – was created back when all students attended neighborhood schools, prior to desegregation efforts and the district’s school choice policy. That configuration is now outdated.

• The six board members who represent specific districts oversee an unequal number of schools, with some members representing up to twice as many schools as others. Central District representative Mary Ruth Kapsiak, for instance, has 14 schools in her district, while the North District’s Jason M. McCarthy has only seven. It also appears, Radford said, that the board members who represent fewer schools tend to have schools that enroll more white students.

• Because of the public school choice policy adopted in 1999, which allows families to apply for enrollment in any district school, parents are now being asked to vote for board representatives who often have no district oversight over the schools their children actually attend. A majority of parents enroll their children in schools outside of their immediate neighborhoods, Radford said.

These conditions violate the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which guarantees one person, one vote, he said.

The current School Board configuration should not only be changed, he argued, but should result in the withholding of funding to the district until a new plan is adopted that ensures all Buffalo parents get fair and equal treatment as voters.

Having made prior headway with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights regarding racial bias in the district’s admissions policies to certain schools, Radford said he’s hopeful he’ll be successful with this complaint, as well. A similar complaint was filed with the state Education Department last week.

Aside from petitioning the state and federal governments on behalf of Patricia A. Elliott-Patton, a parent who works as an assistant director in the same Community Action Organization of Erie County office as Radford, he has also submitted the complaints to the Common Council and the city comptroller. The matter has been placed on the Common Council agenda for Tuesday, where it likely will be sent to committee.

Radford added that he has spoken with Mayor Byron W. Brown about this issue and that Brown has stated he would take a position on the matter. A request for comment from the mayor Monday was not returned.

Radford’s complaints could have direct implications for the mayoral-control model for which Brown is gauging public support. In light of the community conversation, State Sen. Marc C. Panepinto, D-Buffalo, on Monday introduced legislation that would not give Brown mayoral control over the district, but would give the mayor two at-large appointees to the School Board, increasing the size of the board from nine members to 11.

Board President James M. Sampson said a lawyer for the district would be briefing the board on Radford’s complaints during Wednesday’s meeting, probably in closed session.

Sampson also said he is interested in getting more clarification on the issues that Radford is raising.

“Is the issue one of, are we elected to represent schools, or one of whether we represent the people in our district?” Sampson said. “I always thought we were elected to represent people in our district.”

To read Radford’s legal complaints, visit the School Zone blog at buffalonews.com/schoolzone. email: stan@buffnews.com