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Suspensions, refugee students key issues in Buffalo school board elections

Lowering school suspensions in Buffalo and increasing support for the rising number of students learning English as a new language have emerged as two key educational issues in next month’s race for the Board of Education.

Those were two recurring themes at a forum Tuesday that brought 14 of the 16 candidates to the same stage for the first time.

More than 75 people turned out at Lafayette International Community High School with questions that included:

• What steps would they take to add more bilingual teachers?

• How would they address the disproportionate number of students of color who are being suspended?

• Would they review the district’s process for appealing school suspensions?

The forum was sponsored by the community organizing network VOICE-Buffalo and its Buffalo Immigrant Leadership Team, which has been aggressive in lobbying for immigrant and refugee students in the district.

Over the last decade, the number of students in the Buffalo Public Schools learning English as a new language has more than doubled to nearly 6,200, and now account for nearly one in every 5 kids enrolled in the city school system.

But immigrant and refugee leaders are concerned there are too few bilingual teachers to address the poor academic results seen among many of these students.

West District Board Member Jennifer Mecozzi told those in attendance that the School Board is aware of these issues and is trying to address them.

“But what we all need to realize is this is a decade’s worth of mess,” Mecozzi said.

State education law, for example, requires districts to have a bilingual education program if they have at least 20 students per grade who speak the same foreign language, but there aren’t enough qualified teachers who speak the languages. Eighty-three languages, in all, are spoken throughout the district.

“You just don’t have the folks qualified to do that right now,” said Tim Hartigan, an at-large candidate who addressed the audience in Thai during his introductory remarks. “Where are you going to get them? You’re going to grow them at home in the schools.”

Much of the forum was spent discussing numerous concerns about out-of-school suspensions.

A recent report by the Education Trust-New York showed Buffalo suspends students at a higher rate than any of the large urban districts in the state, while black students in Buffalo are more than twice as likely to be suspended as their white classmates.

“Implementing policy and being consistent across the board helps tremendously,” said Jeffrey Conrad, an at-large candidate.

Carolette Meadows, another at-large candidate, said the district shouldn’t handle suspensions with a cookie-cutter approach and raised concerns about the district’s process for suspension hearings and appeals.

East District Candidate Patricia Elliott said she would eliminate suspensions all together.

“There’s no benefit to putting a child out of school,” she said.

Jack Kavanaugh, an at-large candidate, said restorative practice isn’t as simple as giving teachers a day or two of professional development on how to implement it in their classrooms.

“To me,” Kavanaugh said, “so much of this is, how do we bring in extra staff?”

For example, Larry Scott, a school psychologist running for an at-large seat, said there’s one social worker per 900 students in the district. He plans to ask the current School Board to hire an additional 20 mental health professionals next year to help address some of these issues in the schools.

Other candidates who took part in the forum included North District Board Member Hope Jay; Park District Board Member Lou Petrucci; Austin Harig; Desmond Nalls; Terrance Heard; Ann Rivera and Kathy Evans Brown.

The 14 candidates – two were missing – were crowded on stage and each answered at least one question from selected panelists or the audience before being given two minutes to make closing remarks.

Pastor James Giles, president of VOICE-Buffalo, acknowledged afterward that it’s difficult for voters to determine which candidates have what it takes to address these tough educational  issues once they get around the board table with eight other members.

So, before the close of the forum, Giles asked the candidates if he could say a prayer for them.

“You are going to need it if the City of Buffalo and Buffalo Public Schools are going to change in any dramatic way," Giles told them.

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All nine seats on the Buffalo School Board will be on the ballot May 7. Stay informed by signing up for News Education Reporter Jay Rey's weekly email here.

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