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Federal agency rejects Buffalo School Board’s plan to address discrimination

Federal education officials have rejected the Buffalo School Board’s proposal to address allegations of discrimination at the district’s criterion schools, such as City Honors, saying the plan fails to adequately tackle all of a consultant’s recommendations to change admissions practices.

The district has until Sept. 15 to respond, and how it answers the concerns of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights will be a first test for new Superintendent Kriner Cash. He could attempt to amend the plan already submitted or come up with his own proposal to address the allegations of discrimination.

“What OCR sent the district is embarrassing,” said Samuel L. Radford III, president of the District Parent Coordinating Council, which filed the original discrimination complaint. “We can’t even get something this big that affects our kids to be taken seriously by the district. And then the board approves it. That’s the issue that leads us to how important Cash is, how important receivership is and how important the new commissioner is.”

Some critics said the district plan did not go far enough and failed to address the most dramatic recommendations, including one to open a second City Honors and another to eliminate neighborhood preference for those living in the Elmwood Village to attend Frederick Law Olmsted School.

Cash was not immediately available for comment, but in a letter to board members, he called the response an opportunity to pursue some of the goals he has laid out since taking the leadership spot.

“Nonetheless, our additional clarifying response to OCR may be viewed as an opportunity to align some of the critical initiatives that I have been discussing with you and the community during the early stages of my tenure,” he wrote. “Specifically, providing high quality multiple educational options for our children and families.”

Cash, a close ally of State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, said he will have a draft response in time for the board meeting this week.

“The OCR communique must be taken seriously, addressed thoughtfully and with urgency,” Cash wrote in the letter sent to board members earlier this week. “OCR is reminding us in the letter that they ‘may initiate administrative enforcement or judicial proceedings to enforce the specific terms and obligations of the agreement, which could result in the suspension of federal financial assistance from the Department.’ ”

Those financial penalties could amount to millions of dollars if the federal office opts to use them as leverage to enforce specific actions.

A letter from the Office of Civil Rights notes about 10 specific problems the board’s plan fails to address. Those include specific changes to the admissions standards at the criterion schools, the opening of new schools with high standards for students and the creation of an affirmative action plan for staffing.

The office directs the district to suspend its admissions process for the 2016-2017 school year until all of the issues are resolved. That could apply to testing for admission to City Honors, which is expected to begin in October

The office’s response comes weeks after the board submitted a plan that largely departed from the recommendations civil rights expert Gary Orfield made. He was hired to review the district’s standards and admissions practices as part of a settlement of the original complaint.

The plan submitted by the board relied heavily on programs aiming to better prepare students for the city’s criterion schools, including the addition of rigorous summer or after-school programs. It included plans for several schools that were already in the works that district officials thought could also satisfy the civil rights requirements.

“There were clear question marks about what they put together,” Radford said. “You know that it wasn’t a comprehensive plan to address the recommendations. They all just wanted to go forward with the plans they already had for the district.”

Radford said the council attempted to resolve the issue with the district prior to filing the complaint with the Office of Civil Rights but did not feel that administrators took the issue seriously.

Orfield also criticized the board’s plan in his response to the Office of Civil Rights, noting that it failed to address issues at the heart of the complaint, including the schools’ admissions criteria.

“This is now a law enforcement matter in the hands of OCR, which has a legal obligation to solve the civil rights violation,” Orfield said. “I strongly hope that a good workable plan emerges from the negotiations and that no enforcement process is needed in Buffalo.”