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New state powers seen in reform of city schools

New York State’s education commissioner would be given unprecedented authority over a number of Buffalo schools under proposed regulations that would allow her to overrule union contract provisions.

And new guidelines detailing what state receivership would look like reinforce the commissioner’s authority to close schools that fail to make significant progress after several years following the model.

Members of the state Board of Regents signed off on the “emergency” regulations during a committee meeting Monday in Albany, and will cast an official vote at Tuesday’s meeting. The decision on the regulations came at a lengthy meeting, during which the group also recommended a four-month waiver for districts to delay implementation of their teacher-evaluation systems.

The reform strategies echo those in previous versions of the state’s accountability system, with the major difference being they remove the power to revamp struggling schools from local boards and collective bargaining units, which have previously blocked turnaround efforts here and elsewhere.

“I think it’s another tool for us to use when we look at turning around failing schools,” said Buffalo School Board President James M. Sampson.

Although the receivership plan was approved in April with the state budget, education leaders have been working since then to sort out logistics, notably how the powers of the receiver would reckon with union contracts.

The new education commissioner, MaryEllen Elia, will take office July 6.

The guidelines under review this week outline that a receiver – whether the superintendent or an outside entity – would be expected to negotiate certain changes at the schools in question with the local unions. In cases where the two parties can’t come to an agreement, even after working with an outside “conciliator,” the education commissioner would make the final ruling.

That casts the futures of dozens of Buffalo schools in an entirely new light, as they march steadily to a receivership model in the next two years. It also frames the debate about how to best improve Buffalo’s struggling schools in a new context, with those on both sides of the ideological divide lining up to applaud or decry the regulations.

Those favoring reform are hailing them as progressive guidelines that free local districts from the stringent rules included in union contracts.

Others, however, protested the removal of local control from both elected school boards and unions that represent workers.

“Obviously I think it’s absurd that the commissioner be able to modify our contract,” said Buffalo Teachers Federation President Philip Rumore. “It’s basically taking away local control, is what you’re talking about. For the commissioner of education to be able to modify our contract is troubling.”

The receivership model is Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s latest proposal for assisting schools that consistently fail to meet academic standards. The new law puts five long-struggling Buffalo schools under the direct authority of the superintendent when it goes into effect June 23 – removing them from the oversight of the board. If those schools fail to show improvement in one year, they would be transferred to the authority of an external receiver for up to three years.

The schools are Buffalo Elementary School of Technology, Futures Preparatory School, West Hertel Academy, and Burgard and South Park high schools. About 20 other schools would likely be in the same position after two years. Those schools would be the first to access a pot of $75 million to assist in making the changes.

The receivers assigned to those schools would have power to hire and fire staff, extend the school day, adopt curriculum and make other changes.

Along with concerns about the removal of local control, Rumore and School Board member Barbara A. Seals Nevergold expressed skepticism the first receiver could develop and execute viable plans for the schools in a tight time frame.

“This is about the state and (state Education Department) imposing its will on districts,” Nevergold said. “This district is distressed to the point that we can not have one more major thing and do it well. We’re being set up for failure.”

Their concerns reflected those of parents and teachers from across the state who gathered at the state Education Department building Monday to push for a say in developing the receivership guidelines.

“We are demanding the time and money to create quality community schools that provide the wraparound services that are needed to address the health, social and emotional issues that come from living in poverty,” said Eve Shippens, a Buffalo teacher and member of Citizen Action of New York. “We need to set our schools and our children up for success, not failure.”