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Parent group urges feds to reject new district civil rights plan

Parents who called in the U.S. government over alleged discrimination in admissions practices at Buffalo’s top public schools say the district’s latest solution is as bad as the first one and deserves to be rejected – again.

Superintendent “Kriner Cash and the Board of Education are perpetuating the same institutionally racist practices that led to the civil rights violation,” said Samuel L. Radford III, president of the District Parent Coordinating Council. “They don’t address the underlying issues at all.”

Chief among the complaints is the district’s current unwillingness to eliminate the neighborhood preference for admission to Olmsted School 64 or to open a second City Honors School – both considered among the district’s best – and to implement an affirmative-action hiring plan for teachers.

This is the second time the parent group has filed objections to the district’s response to recommendations made by consultant Gary Orfield and the UCLA Civil Rights Project. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights rejected the first district response early last month after withering criticism from both the parent group and Orfield.

Radford said the superintendent’s latest response has prompted the parent group to accelerate plans to file another Office of Civil Rights complaint regarding disparate treatment of students with special needs. A complaint regarding the district’s education of English language learners is already under investigation. The group had held off filing the complaint on behalf of special-needs students to see if Cash, who became superintendent in late August, would aggressively deal with the issue.

“We’re not going to lose a whole year waiting for him to figure this thing out,” Radford said.

The parent group is also urging the appointment of a “special master” to develop and oversee a remedial plan to resolve the the discrimination complaints.

In response, Cash said he commends the parent group for voicing its concerns and said he recognizes that the district’s most recently submitted plan to the Office of Civil Rights may require further revision. What the district submitted last week to the federal agency, however, reflects the district’s current realities and is a vast improvement over the first draft, he said.

Change requires dialogue and education within the school community, to make progress sustainable, he said, and it requires a better leadership structure than what the district currently has.

“You have to make sure you don’t overpromise and underdeliver,” he said. “To me, that’s worse.”

Among the revised district recommendations Radford and other parent representatives have criticized are:

• Continued resistance to ending the neighborhood admissions preference for children attending Olmsted 64. The school, which serves children in prekindergarten through fourth grades, is considered a gateway school to City Honors, the most prestigious public school in the city and often rated among the best in the nation.

The district’s desire to further consult with Olmsted’s current parents, and not other parents hurt by the exclusionary policy, smacks of institutional racism designed to protect families residing in the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods, Radford said. Olmsted is 29 percent black, while the district as a whole is 50 percent black, according to enrollment data.

Cash said the district wants feedback from all stakeholders but that it would be unreasonable to exclude those at the school who would be directly affected by the change.

• Unwillingness to open a second City Honors. While the district’s revised response refers to the willingness to open new district high schools with admissions criteria, it defers on Orfield’s recommendation to create a City Honors II. Instead, the district says the feasibility of opening a second City Honors would depend on future, available state aid. Radford called the idea of resisting anti-discrimination recommendations because of money “insulting.”

Cash said that while the district is not committed to opening a City Honors II, it is committed to opening one or more high schools that are as “highly competitive, high caliber” as City Honors.

• Failure to accept an affirmative action hiring plan for district teachers. Though Orfield recommended the district adopt a strong plan to identify and recruit teachers of color for criteria-based schools, the district says this goal requires further legal review. Radford called this a “delay tactic.”

Cash stated he supports Orfield’s recommendation but that any district hiring plan must be reconciled against current union contracts.

• Unwillingness to hire a deputy superintendent to implement civil rights recommendations. Although the district has committed to assigning a high-level administrator to oversee changes required by the Office of Civil Rights, it does not commit to hiring a deputy superintendent specifically for that function.

“They are not taking this seriously,” Radford said.

Cash said he’s been vocal about his struggles to improve and revamp his leadership team and that he eventually expects to name someone who can make these recommendations a top priority.

• Resistance to setting aside 10 percent of all seats for students deserving “special consideration.” Orfield had recommended 10 percent of seats in criteria-based schools be reserved for students who possess high achievement potential but have been inadequately prepared by the school district and fallen short of admissions standards. The district has said it wants to further research how to identify students with potential and does not commit to a 10 percent threshold.

Radford called this another “delay tactic.” Cash said the district has hired someone to try to revamp many of the district’s admissions practices.

Orfield, whose team drafted the original recommendations, declined to offer an assessment of the district’s latest response, except to say that his team’s recommendations were meant to work together as part of an interwoven and comprehensive strategy to improve opportunities for all children.

Though he submitted a statement to the Office of Civil Rights in August that was highly critical of the district’s initial response to his recommendations, he said he does not intend to insert himself in local matters further without the invitation of either the Office of Civil Rights or the district.

He added that he hopes the two sides manage to reach a resolution.

The school district has not spoken to or sought any advice from Orfield or his team since he presented his report in May, though Orfield had offered to work with the district further, as needed. The district has consulted with Office of Civil Rights lawyer David Krieger.

At the last School Board meeting, Cash said the district’s second response to the Office of Civil Rights is more detailed and pursues a more aggressive time line for implementation. While the original district response was 12 pages long, the new plan is 40 pages long.

The new plan accepts 15 of Orfield’s 24 recommendations and modifies the rest. The first plan accepted only five of Orfield’s recommendations, rejected one, and modified the rest. The new draft also explicitly lists which district administrators are responsible for shepherding through each priority.

Cash said the district is still actively seeking input and will continue to improve in its current plan to address the discrimination complaint, even though a revised draft was submitted to the Office of Civil Rights on Friday.

An opportunity for the public to comment is listed on the district’s home page under the “Spotlight” section.

Inequities that have been built into the school district have evolved over decades, Cash said, so building the support for change won’t happen overnight – especially in Buffalo. It takes systematic work, he said.

“I have not wavered, at all, in my commitment to right anything that is going wrong in education,” he said.

To read the district’s second response to the Office of Civil Rights, visit the School Zone blog at email: