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State removes 10 Buffalo schools from receivership list, prompting criticism of law

State lawmakers passed controversial legislation last year to finally turn around schools that had been struggling for as long as a decade, including 25 of them in Buffalo.

But now – less than a year since the receivership law gave the superintendent unprecedented powers and sparked a teachers union lawsuit – 10 of the 25 Buffalo schools will suddenly be removed from the receivership list by June 30 because the state said they have shown progress in the last two years.

Not only did that come as a surprise to some, it was an anticlimactic twist for a law that generated so much hype.

The urgency to make progress and schools’ fear of being closed under the new law has now been met with uncertainty and confusion over how receivership will continue to play out. It also has given critics new ammunition.

“One day these schools have a death sentence and the next day many of them are in good standing? How does that happen?” said Assemblyman Michael P. Kearns, D-Buffalo, who voted against the legislation. “It’s confusing, and if I’m confused as a legislator, can you imagine parents?”

Kearns, whose district includes South Park High School, is pleased it will come off the receivership list. But he questioned why its students, parents and staff were put through all the stress when the school had been making progress for several years.

Three of the five schools in the first round of receivership – South Park, Burgard High School and Buffalo Elementary School of Technology – were removed from the list, as were seven other schools in the second round.

“In one year, 10 of these schools are off the list?” said Philip Rumore, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation. “I mean, I’m glad, but it shows the insanity. They shouldn’t have been on the list in the first place.”

The state approved the receivership law and announced the schools on the list last year, but that was before the most recent test scores were made available showing some schools were already making improvement.

School Board member Barbara A. Seals Nevergold, another critic of the law, questioned whether anyone had been tracking the progress of these schools before they were placed in receivership. She was among those surprised by the turnover of city schools on the list.

“In one sense, you want to support the teachers, staff and parents at the schools that moved out of receivership and moved up the accountability level,” Nevergold said.

“On the other hand,” she said, “it just seemed to be a questionable system to begin with when you have that much movement.”

School district officials acknowledged that they, too, still have questions.

For example, while 10 city schools improved their state rating and came off the receivership list, five others were downgraded: Buffalo Academy @ 44, Bennett Park Montessori School, Dr. Antonia Pantoja Community School of Academic Excellence, Arthur O. Eve School of Distinction, and School 82 Early Childhood Center.

The district initially said that those five would be added to the list and placed under the sole control of Superintendent Kriner Cash in the next school year. That would bring the number of Buffalo schools in receivership to 20.

But when The Buffalo News asked the state Education Department about that, officials in Albany said that those five would not be in receivership because they need to be deemed persistently struggling for at least three years.

The confusion underscores one fact: The new law has been met with questions since its inception. Its rollout, too, was bumpy, as schools in the first round had one year to come up with turnaround plans and show progress under the control of the superintendent or face takeover by an outside entity.

The teachers union raised many of those issues in its lawsuit, which challenged the receivership law, its implementation and the right of the superintendent to impose new contract terms on teachers working at the receivership schools. The union’s lawsuit won’t be affected by the changes made to the receivership list, Rumore said.

Meanwhile, those schools promised two years of extra funding – but that later had their receivership tag removed – will get to keep the money from this year, district officials said. There are, however, still some questions about the funding for next year.

Others have raised the larger issue of the state allocating millions of dollars to help turn around receivership schools when some of them may not have belonged on the list or were taken off just six months later.

“There’s a reason I voted ‘no’ on the bill,” Kearns said. “It just didn’t seem as though it was well thought-out.”

Even though 10 city schools were taken off the list, the superintendent pointed out, those schools still have plenty of work to do to improve their academic performance.

The schools, in fact, are required under the law to continue implementing their turnaround plans for the next two to three years, district officials said. Any changes that were made at those schools this year by the superintendent also should remain in place for at least the next school year, officials said.

“We’re not taking our foot off the pedal,” Cash said.