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Editorial: In trading district needs for a teachers contract, Cash sets high expectations

The Buffalo School District is fortunate to have Kriner Cash as superintendent. That’s true for many reasons and despite another: that the teachers' contract he negotiated costs more than the district can afford.

Cash said he believed he needed to get the contract done so that the district was moving in one direction: toward greater student achievement. Teachers, working under a contract that had expired 12 years earlier, were demoralized and leaving the district, he said in a recent meeting with The Buffalo News editorial board. He needed to have them fully committed to improving their skills and to be “present” for the students. Teacher absenteeism is an ongoing problem in Buffalo schools.

Thus, he shepherded a contract that is generous to teachers but parsimonious to the district, to students and to taxpayers. The only way it could approach fairness is if the school district’s taxpayers had to fund the costs it creates and others that it threatens, as the district negotiates with other district unions but now lacks the resources to meet their heightened expectations.

If the past is any guide, that won’t happen. Albany is a committed enabler of overspending school districts, and Assembly Democrats are already proposing to raise taxes on the wealthy to fund their 2017-18 spending aspirations.

For his part, Cash says he will be seeking help from the private sector, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (possible) and an additional $8.5 million from City Hall on top of its current annual contribution of $70 million  (improbable, especially in a mayoral election year). Still, it will be necessary for Buffalo taxpayers to feel the pinch of budget giveaways if the district is ever going to become serious about better managing its costs.

Nevertheless, it is fair to say that Cash was faced with reconciling two hugely difficult and contradictory tasks: quickly securing a contract that was fair to all sides and continuing his good work on improving the quality of education in Buffalo. For better or worse, he tilted toward the latter, sacrificing legitimate district needs in favor of creating conditions that he says favor progress on the urgent matter of student performance.

For the cost to be worth it, he will have to produce. Fortunately, there is cause for optimism, and for the best of reasons: Cash has already made a difference.

The district’s graduation rate is up to 63 percent from below 50 just a few years ago. And he has set a public goal of reaching 70 percent in 2019. He believes that is eminently achievable.

Also under his leadership, the state has reduced the number of schools the state deems to be failing to 15 from 25 – a 40 percent reduction. And he has increased student opportunities, opening 13 community schools with collegiate, corporate and health care partners in high-risk neighborhoods.

That’s serious progress and it deserves the kind of support Cash would like from the district’s fractious and dysfunctional School Board. Without that backing, Cash says he will leave sooner rather than later.

In any case, he says the clock is ticking on his time in Buffalo. “I’m here five years, tops,” he said. After that – assuming he stays that long – he believes the district will be on a path on which the next superintendent can succeed.

If that happens, it will be harder to argue with the costly deal he negotiated with the Buffalo Teachers Federation. As it stands, that contract is a source of legitimate concern, but if his work leads Buffalo out of the educational thicket in which it has been lost, controlling costs while setting the city up for continued economic revival, the complaints will be drowned out by cheers.

Cash has 29 months to reach his graduation-rate goal. They are going to tell an important tale.

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