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Editorial: Cash's dedication to Buffalo's students is creating noticeable improvement

Whatever Kriner Cash’s critics may say, the fact is that the work of Buffalo’s school superintendent is head-and-shoulders above that of any of his recent predecessors. Whether the issue is vision, preparation, transparency or commitment, Cash is working diligently and effectively to improve the performance of the school district he leads and the students it must educate.

Cash offered a year-end summary this week of his efforts to lead a district beset by poverty, language challenges and terrible dysfunction, within and between the School Board and the Buffalo Teachers Federation. One wonders if he knew what he was getting into when he agreed to come to Buffalo two years ago, but regardless, he is committed – and he is making progress.

Graduation rates are up. So are grade point averages. Schools are being reimagined to mesh with economic opportunities – Blue Economy at Riverside Academy, Research Laboratory Program for Bioinformatics & Life Sciences at School 366, the Lewis J. Bennett High School of Innovative Technology. These are experiments; they may require tweaking, but they demonstrate a commitment to action and an awareness of opportunity.

Altogether, it’s a turnaround from the performance of previous superintendents, all of whom had some successes, but lacked the drive and clear sense of direction that Cash has provided. When stakeholders believe good things can happen, they are more open to helping them along.

For example, graduation rates started to rise under Pamela Brown, but she communicated poorly and colluded to keep the School Board’s minority bloc in the dark about plans. In that kind of environment, long-term success is impossible. Donald Ogilvie lost the confidence of the board members who supported him and, in any case, planned to stay no more than two years. He lasted one.

Cash remains fully engaged and focused on the future. That’s critical, because many important challenges have yet to be met. One that he acknowledged in meeting with The Buffalo News editorial board was the need to decrease absenteeism among both students and teachers. His efforts in those areas have met with only minor success to date, but it’s a critical matter.

Chronic absence among students is a predictor of failure to graduate. Excessive teacher absences cheat students of stability, taxpayers of fair treatment and the district of an important path to improvement.

Cash is not giving up and, in fact, set a goal of improving rates of attendance by 10 to 20 percent by this time next year. That’s the sign of a leader who understands the value of public accountability. To do that, he plans to seek better reporting of absences, which is a great idea even if it is startling that those data aren’t already available.

Although he didn’t get into details during his meeting with The News editorial board, Cash staunchly defended the contract agreement he struck last fall with the teachers union. The deal has been criticized by many, including this page, which argued that it set an expensive precedent the district is too cash-strapped to follow, even as other unions seek similar treatment. It will be interesting to hear his views of the subject, which he promised to provide after the proceedings in Albany over the actions of board member Carl Paladino are completed.

Cash may not convince everyone that this was the great deal he says it was, but on balance, we suspect, most observers would agree that the district is in the best hands it has seen for many years.

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