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Elia wants receivership to continue at least another year for struggling Buffalo schools

If it were up to State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, the struggling Buffalo schools placed under direct control of the superintendent to spur progress would remain there for at least another year.

But it’s not up to her.

It’s up to lawmakers in Albany, where they continued to debate changes to the controversial receivership law Thursday night as part of the budget process.

“I do think that the timing was very difficult,” Elia said. “The schools need an additional year of superintendent receivership to really be able to show the work that they’re doing. I think that’s a reasonable thing to expect, but I don’t know if that’s going to happen.”

The commissioner made her comments Thursday during an hourlong meeting with editors and reporters of The Buffalo News, where she covered a wide range of topics from the opt-out movement to her relationship with the new Board of Regents to the state of Buffalo schools.

Elia addressed the confusion and uncertainty surrounding the receivership law and was asked about where it goes from here.

“That’s a really good question,” she said. “Who knows, right?”

The receivership law was passed last year in an effort to turn around schools that had been struggling for as long as a decade, including 25 of them in Buffalo. It allows the superintendent to make changes at designated schools without the approval of the School Board or negotiating with the union, then gives a specified period of time – a year for those most “persistently struggling” – to show progress or face takeover by an outside entity.

But many were caught by surprise last month when the state Education Department announced that 10 of the 25 Buffalo schools will be removed from the receivership list by June 30 because they have shown progress in the last two years.

“I wasn’t here when the law was put in place,” said Elia, who has been education commissioner since July. “I would have raised some concern at the time on the schedule. I also would have been very focused on how it is a school gets on and gets off.

“But in my position,” she added, “there’s a law. That’s what I have to follow – and I did.”

Elia, in fact, had raised questions about whether taking some schools off the receivership list would deprive them of the attention they needed. She specifically voiced that concern with the superintendents of the 70 schools across the state that are being taken off the list.

“In my conversations with the superintendents, I was very clear: ‘You got to keep a major focus on those schools,’ ” Elia said.

Now, the issue is generating further discussion in Albany, where Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo wants those 70 schools back on the receivership list.

The Education Department is currently working with the governor, as well as lawmakers in the Senate and the Assembly, to get some of its concerns about the receivership law addressed.

That includes the one-year time frame that the most struggling schools have to show progress.

“I think that’s an important shift that we’ll see if that gets changed,” Elia said.

But, discussions are moving at “warp speed” in Albany, she said, and she’s not necessarily at the table.

“It’s an interesting process that I’m learning about in Albany,” Elia said. “As the commissioner, I’m not really in position to always change what I think should be changed.”

Elia, as part of a two-day tour of schools in the Buffalo area, spent Thursday morning visiting two of the city’s receivership schools – Marva J. Daniel Futures Preparatory School and West Hertel Academy – before her meeting at The News, where she also discussed:

• The opt-out movement and her visits to schools to discuss state standards and the changes being made to assessment tests that start next week: “I think the big thing that I saw and heard in virtually every audience that I spoke to is that they didn’t feel part of the process,” Elia said. “The speed at which the plan was rolled out, it was fast.”

• How her role will be affected by the recent changes on the Board of Regents, the board that sets policies for New York’s public schools: “I think we need some more time together,” she said.

“You do have a number of different Regents. … The whole group supporting the kind of move toward big reform is not what it used to be,” she said. “However, I think that we have people that have experience and want kids to be successful.”

• The job that new Superintendent Kriner Cash is doing in Buffalo: “I know Kriner. I’ve known him for a long time, and I encouraged him to apply when this job was opening,” Elia said. “I think you’ve seen some really good work going on in Buffalo, and I think he’s been able to really address some of the basic needs that needed to occur so that it changes.”