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Buffalo Public Schools fail again to satisfy feds on civil rights plan

When a federal civil rights office rejected the Buffalo Public Schools’ original plan to resolve allegations of discriminatory admissions practices at its better schools, it identified about a dozen deficiencies and demanded more information.

But the district’s response to those original issues has generated more questions than answers.

The U.S. Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights now wants answers to 53 specific questions, each one asking the district to justify various pieces of its plan – and why it rejected the recommendations of an outside consultant. Those questions include why the plan does not call for a second City Honors School and for the elimination of neighborhood preference at Olmsted 64, both among the district’s best schools. And the answers are due by Friday.

“They literally have 53 questions,” said Samuel L. Radford III, president of the District Parent Coordinating Council, which filed the original complaint. “Are you serious? You’re telling me that their answers caused more questions. They’re basically putting together a response that anyone can see on the surface is totally inadequate.”

The response is the latest in what has become a tense and problem-plagued process that essentially pits the Buffalo Public Schools against the nation’s highest education office, which will soon be taken over by John B. King, who was often at odds with district leaders when he was New York State education commissioner.

At stake are millions of dollars the district receives to help level the playing field for low-income children, and some School Board members say it is crucial to rise above politics and focus on coming up with a more equitable system.

“The politics of the district have interfered with this getting answered in an appropriate way,” said Board Member Sharon Belton-Cottman. “OCR is not going away. They’re watching everything we do, and they’re not going to have any problems doing what they need to do. You do not want to play with OCR because once they start on you, they don’t back off.”

Many of the questions ask the district to justify why its plan does not significantly change its admissions criteria, including the use of standardized tests as a determining factor. The district’s plan also includes provisions to seek additional community input before making serious changes.

In this latest response, dated Oct. 15, the federal office also reminds the district it is required to supply information in a timely matter, or face financial sanctions.

“OCR 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,” the office writes in a letter.

Superintendent Kriner Cash informed board members that he wants to submit a response before the deadline this Friday.

The civil rights issue started early last year when the parent council filed the complaint alleging discrimination in the admissions process for criterion schools, including City Honors and Olmsted. The district agreed as part of a settlement to hire an outside consultant to offer recommendations on the matter. The board contracted with Gary Orfield of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, a well-regarded national civil rights expert.

Almost immediately, problems beset the process.

Several School Board members disagree with the premise of the original complaint, and argue it is outside the jurisdiction of the federal government to mandate a change in admissions standards. Board Member Carl Paladino has gone as far as saying the district should challenge the federal office in court.

“We have to fight OCR. We’re not a segregated district,” Paladino said. “We have a right to have a place where talented students can go to school. We have a right to have neighborhood schools. Parents have those rights.”

Tensions between Paladino and Orfield have been ongoing and included an email exchange in which Paladino told Orfield to “get out of the way.” Orfield reported the email to the federal office, calling it an intimidation tactic and noting he had never encountered such threatening behavior in other districts.

Board members faced more potential problems when – despite the advice of then-Distinguished Educator Judy Elliott and members of the staff – they attempted to delay submitting a proposal to the federal office.

Cash now continues to work with members of his staff to come up with more thorough answers to this latest round of questions; board members remain divided on how to move forward.

Paladino maintains that the district should tell OCR to “shove it and sue us,” and other board members have expressed concerns that addressing the issue is consuming excessive resources.

Those members say some of Orfield’s recommendations – including one to promote housing integration – fall outside the power of the board. And rather than focus on the admissions standards, they want to put more support in the early grade levels.

“It’s going to take the district all of its resources to answer this,” said Board Member Larry Quinn. “There’s no capacity in this district to get anything done, now we’re going to put all of our resources into this. It’s really sad in my view.”

Others, however, cautioned that the issues should not be taken lightly, and blamed certain board members for continuing to generate problems with the federal office.

“In 2015, we should be about correcting injustices and not playing games,” Belton-Cottman said. “They should know better, and since they don’t we’re going to have to go to the school of hard knocks on this one.”

Some say the situation underscores racial tensions that have dogged the city for generations, and a lack of willingness to change policies that drive inequity. While the district’s enrollment is about 21 percent white, for instance, City Honors is 64 percent white and Olmsted 64 is 47 percent white. In addition, the federal office found that white students who applied were disproportionately granted admission compared to minority students.

“We would not desegregate our schools until a federal judge came in and made us,” Radford said. “Here we are in a city that’s one of the most segregated in the country, one of the poorest and one of the most institutionally racist. We’ve fallen into our old habits.”