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Bickering board seeks delay in civil rights plan

With just weeks until the Buffalo School Board needs to respond to a federal civil rights complaint or risk losing millions of dollars in federal aid, board members Tuesday failed to agree on a plan to address allegations of racial discrimination at its criteria-based schools.

Rather, they decided to ask the Office of Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education to extend the Aug. 15 deadline into early September, with some of them citing the fact that the Buffalo district does not yet have a permanent superintendent.

The decision to seek a delay came against the advice of Judy L. Elliott, the state-appointed distinguished educator, who warned that the request might look like a stalling tactic.

“They are not going to look kindly at any delay,” Elliott told the board. “If you come up short, they will tell you what to do.”

Elliott also reinforced that the federal government would not likely be sympathetic to the fact that the board has not yet chosen a permanent superintendent.

“No disrespect, that’s not their problem,” she said.

The Office of Civil Rights would have to approve the extension, and it seemed unlikely at Tuesday’s meeting that the additional time would make any difference in generating a viable plan.

Rather than discuss specific parts of a proposal generated by district administrators in response to a report by an outside consultant, board members opted to bicker and sling mud at one another other, divided along the usual racial and ideological lines that have come to define them as an elected body.

With no clear end to the search for a permanent superintendent in sight, and the new threat of an outside receiver taking over district schools, tensions were high.

“In light of the chaos that exists on this board today, we should not be responding” to the federal government,” said board member Carl P. Paladino, who has been critical of consultant Gary Orfield, whom the district hired to investigate the civil rights complaint.

Paladino and some members of the board majority questioned why components of their reform plan – including neighborhood schools, charters and a second City Honors – were not incorporated into the document prepared by administrators.

Others questioned the feasibility of some components of the plan developed under then-interim Superintendent Donald A. Ogilvie, who left June 30.

“I don’t understand why we’re rushing on something like this,” said board member Larry Quinn.

Paladino also questioned the credentials of those who put together the plan, including interim Superintendent Darren J. Brown, who responded that he did not want to have to pull out his résumé.

Those in the minority bloc fired back with accusations that their colleagues are not taking the civil rights issue seriously, and said they should have submitted feedback to the draft resolution when Ogilvie presented it a month ago.

“We’re not going to have a more professional conversation a week from now, or two weeks from now,” said board member Theresa A. Harris-Tigg.

“Listening to Mr. Paladino, who feels there’s some conspiracy going on here … I don’t think we’re going to get very far,” board member Barbara A. Seals Nevergold agreed.

“You see it as irrelevant. You see it as nonsense. You see it as unimportant. You don’t have respect for the federal government and OCR, and you certainly don’t have respect for Dr. Orfield,” she added.

Paladino acknowledged that Nevergold’s synopsis accurately summed up his feelings.

Board member Sharon M. Belton-Cottman, meanwhile, put her feelings about Paladino more bluntly.

“He’s crazy as hell,” she said.

At one particularly rowdy point, board Vice President Jason M. McCarthy snapped at Paladino to get his attention.

The drama came hours after Brown and members of the minority bloc took issue with an article in The Buffalo News that recapped a meeting between the board and New York’s new education commissioner, MaryEllen Elia, who repeatedly warned them to get their act together and fix their schools, or she would do it for them.

Brown and minority bloc members said they did not interpret the commissioner’s remarks to suggest she intended to take such drastic action. Rather, they said they believe Elia looks forward to supporting their efforts.

Any sense of collaboration, however, was nonexistent at Tuesday’s meeting as members spent hours arguing over physical education and turnaround plans before moving on to the discussion of the civil rights complaint – one of the main reasons for convening the special session.

The recommendations presented by administrators call for giving Buffalo students more options for getting into some of the district’s elite schools, as well as creating other schools in good standing.

The plan comes as part of a settlement of a civil rights complaint, which forced the district to hire the Civil Rights Project to investigate allegations of racial disparities among students attending elite schools such as City Honors and Olmsted.

Orfield issued his recommendations in May, calling for the opening of three new schools with high admissions standards – including a second City Honors – and eliminating neighborhood preferences for Olmsted School 64, which houses the district’s only elementary gifted-and-talented program.

The consultant also recommended that the district minimize IQ-type tests as a primary determinant – or barrier – to student admissibility, and that it explore a regional magnet school that would draw students from the suburbs.

Although the board is under no obligation to adopt any of Orfield’s recommendations, it will be under close scrutiny from the U.S. Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights, which could potentially use the millions of dollars in federal funding the district receives to force changes.

That added scrutiny comes for a district that is already feeling it at all levels from the mayor to the governor and state education commissioner.

“If and when the Office of Civil Rights comes down on this district for not being in compliance,” Harris-Tigg said, “I want to make sure the finger points at the people who stalled this process.”