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Buffalo School Board changes mean a new reality

When control of the Buffalo School Board shifted two years ago, members of the new majority signaled they would attempt to reset the direction of the district.

They wanted then-Superintendent Pamela C. Brown out of the job, and ultimately forced her resignation. They dubbed themselves the “reform majority” and presented a plan that called for creating charter schools and overhauling the teachers contract.

This time around, however, members of the new majority elected Tuesday do not appear to be looking for a major reset regarding Superintendent Kriner Cash and the agenda he has laid out for the schools. In fact, they have all expressed support for Cash and the key tenets of his plan, which include community schools, lower class sizes and a focus on literacy.

“We have been talking about smaller class sizes since 2011, but it did not become an issue until (Board Member) Larry Quinn said it,” said Sharon Belton-Cottman, who ran unopposed in the Ferry District. “What we want to do in regards to the board is to make sure that children go first. Children are our main priority.”

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Related content: Photo gallery of new Buffalo School Board, as of July 1

Buffalo School Board gets new majority

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Still, there are a few major issues on which the new board will likely take a different approach, namely the Buffalo Teachers Federation contract. And with six members, as opposed to the five-member current majority, the new majority can afford to lose a member on a particular issue and still prevail in a vote of the nine-member board.

The current majority has pushed a contract proposal that calls for a longer school day and changes to work rules. Most of the newly elected members, however, have suggested they will take a softer approach that will likely be viewed more favorably by teachers.

Then there’s the question of what the election means for Cash himself. Often, changes on the board result in a change of district leadership. But Cash was appointed with an 8-0 vote from the board – Carl P. Paladino was not at the meeting – and has continued to enjoy support from both sides of the divided board, as well as from community leaders.

“We feel really good about the direction of the district and the New Education Bargain the superintendent has laid out,” said David Rust, executive director of Say Yes Buffalo. “I hope this community continues to stay on the path and embrace his plan as we move forward.”

Cash’s education plan

Whether Cash continues to receive support from the board will largely depend on the proposals he puts forth to improve student performance.

His plan, the New Education Bargain, calls for community schools, lower class sizes, more career programs and a focus on early literacy – all things that have become state and national priorities. They also are long-standing tenets of the agenda for most teachers unions.

Cash has also talked extensively about offering greater support for children and their families, who in high-poverty districts like Buffalo face many outside challenges before they enroll in the school system.

“Dr. Kriner Cash appears to be up to the challenge,” wrote Board Member-elect Paulette Woods in a survey about her position on education issues. “He is developing relationships with the community to break the school to prison pipeline, to reduce suspension rates and increase (the) graduation rate.”

In the weeks leading up to the election, members of the new majority said they share many of the same priorities.

“My platform has consistently been working on smaller class sizes, increasing attendance, reducing suspensions and I’m fully supportive of the advent of community schools,” said newcomer Hope R. Jay. “So those are the issues I hope to be able to work on when I’m on the board.”

All five of the new majority members elected in Tuesday’s races said lower class sizes should be the top priority in the 2016-17 budget.

Four of them also put additional reading teachers in their top three priorities, with Jay proposing 90-minute reading classes, one-on-one tutoring and small-group learning.

West District’s newly elected Jennifer L. Mecozzi cited Cornerstone Academy for Social Action in the Bronx as a successful community school model that could be replicated in Buffalo. The school is located in a high poverty area with a diverse population.

Some of the candidates also credited Cash for being able to navigate Buffalo’s often politically charged landscape.

“Superintendent Cash has exhibited a good grasp on the educational climate and political culture of this city,” Belton-Cottman wrote in her survey. “This is his strength, along with his experience in managing urban school districts.”

Teachers contract

One area in which the new majority will likely differ from the outgoing one is in how to handle contract negotiations with the BTF.

Buffalo teachers are working under what could be the longest expired school contract in state history – it expired 12 years ago – and for the past few years negotiations have appeared to be dragging on with little hope of resolution.

The outgoing majority has taken a hard-line approach, bringing in an outside attorney at a cost of $350 an hour to assist. The district estimates it has already spent $150,000 for attorney Terry O’Neil’s services.

It also spent $20,000 on contracts with public relations firm Eric Mower + Associates to issue a series of news releases to share its positions.

The latest offer calls for increasing the school day by 40 minutes, increasing the number of work days from 186 to 189 and requiring teachers to pay 12 percent of their health insurance premium. It also includes a provision to allow principals to transfer and assign teachers based on educational needs, not seniority, a cornerstone in most labor contracts.

In exchange, teachers would get a 10 percent salary increase, plus an additional 1 percent each of the next three years.

Members of the new majority, on the other hand, have seemed reluctant to make such dramatic changes to work rules, and instead favor raising compensation for teachers.

That would be in line with a proposal issued by a factfinder that BTF President Philip Rumore said would be “acceptable” to his members. That proposal called for paying teachers retroactive raises going back to the 2008-09 school year. It also suggested giving the most senior teachers periodic longevity bonuses of up to $5,000. Those changes would bring the maximum salary for a Buffalo teacher to about $97,000 and result in a roughly 12 percent raise for teachers. The proposal also called for teachers to pay a small amount toward their health insurance.

Still, some of the newly elected majority members have proposed other things that might not sit well with teachers.

“Everybody, every other municipality, knows you have to pay 15 to 20 percent of your health care,” Woods said. “That’s a significant amount of money that we could take and put toward teachers, lowering class sizes, expanding pre-K and grade 3 education, expanding after-school programs.”

State receivership

Another area where new board members could potentially clash with district leadership is the state’s receivership law. Although Belton-Cottman and Woods said they believed the receivership law had potential to improve the city’s schools, other members of the new majority did not share the same optimism. And Belton-Cottman later elaborated that the only positive was that receivership status comes with extra funding.

Those in the incoming majority have been critical of the State Education Department and what they see as unfair mandates coming out of Albany, saying that more funding, not new accountability systems, is the key to improving outcomes for students.

The receivership law, which went into effect in July, has drawn similar ire. The law allows for schools that consistently fail to meet certain academic standards to be placed in the hands of a receiver who can make changes and execute plans without the approval of the School Board, and that circumvent the union contract. That might include introducing new programs, extending the school day or hiring certain teachers, regardless of seniority.

The superintendent acts as the initial receiver and has a limited amount of time to make academic gains at those schools before they can be placed in the hands of an outside entity.

Historically, local school boards have been the driving force in education, setting policies, approving budgets and hiring superintendents. Much of what happens in schools also is governed by agreements negotiated with labor unions.

The teachers union is now challenging the receivership law in court, and new questions emerged when the state Education Department removed 10 Buffalo schools from the receivership list. Critics asked why those schools were deemed failing in the first place, only to be removed from the receivership list months after receiving that designation.

A district spokeswoman said it would be premature for Cash to comment on the election results, but the superintendent has previously indicated that he will not let politics – whether internal or external – stand in the way of advancing his agenda for the district.

“All of these people who have expressed good will and support, I’m going to ask them to stay with us on this,” he said last fall, shortly after being hired. “This is the work, and I need to be able to do the work without anything getting in my way.”

The new majority on the board

• All six members of the new Buffalo School Board majority believe lower class sizes should be the top priority.

• At least four put additional reading teachers in their top three budget priorities.

• At least four rate Superintendent Kriner Cash’s performance as “good.” One called it “fair.”

• Four do not think the state receivership law improves Buffalo’s schools.

• At least four favor some school seats reserved for students living in neighborhoods, and some available through school choice.

email: tlankes@buffnews.com and dswilliams@buffnews.com