Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Buffalo Schools at the Crossroads: The New Majority Majority’s Strategic “Vision” Revisited

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the “Vision Statement” issued by new Buffalo School Board President James Sampson.  To recap, the timeline of the new Board’s progress is as follows:   (1) July 1, the new Board members were sworn in (including myself, Larry Quinn and Patricia Bowers-Pierce) and new Board officers were elected (2) July 2, Mr. Sampson emailed his five-page “Vision Statement”, which he claimed would “guide our discussions and decision making over the coming year” (3) July 2, I responded to Mr. Sampson’s email, as did Ms. Belton-Cottman, asking some pertinent questions about the origin of this statement and seeking clarification about the entire Board’s ability to have input and discussion about the proposals contained within this “draft” statement.  Mr. Sampson’s curt response was “Of course”, but we have yet to see any time established to discuss the “Vision” and several of its proposed actions have already been instituted.
Let’s just take the section entitled, “Interim Superintendent”, for example.  Although this section begins with “The Board should hire an interim Superintendent….” the Interim Superintendent, Donald Ogilvie was already hired by the 5 majority members of the Board, prior to the Board meeting of July 9th.  (4) On July 6, Mr. Sampson sent another email informing Board members of his intention to bring the appointment of Donald Ogilvie as Superintendent to the Board at its July 9th meeting.  The only thing that remained was to formally install him, over the objections of the four minority members, who weren’t given an opportunity to interview Mr. Ogilvie prior to his hiring.  The majority rammed through this appointment, ignoring the obvious violations of Board policy, marginalizing the minority Board members and dis-enfranching the constituents we represent.

The “Vision Statement” on the “Interim Superintendent” goes on to extol the qualities, experiences and expertise expected of this individual, including “buying into the BOE’s strategy and position with regard to moving the BPSD forward”; “Be influential within State Education Department”; “Be able to cut through the intrigues and various agendas of current administration officials bent on sabotaging reform efforts”, “have no stake in being name the permanent superintendent”.  The most revealing expectation for this individual, however, is contained in the final bullet point, which reads”

Understand how to create a more entrepreneurial organization which is critical for moving the BPSD away from being exclusively in the business of operating and managing K-12 public schools and more toward being in the business of providing high quality services to independent organizations that operate and manage public schools”. 

This statement raises grave concerns for me as the mission of the Buffalo Public School District is to ensure that every child receives a world class education that prepares them for college and careers.  Our business is to operate and manage K-12 public schools.    And who are these individual organizations that Mr. Sampson refers to?  He doesn't say but one can guess after reading the article in the July 25th edition of the Buffalo News.   So the Majority Majority’s proposal would use our children as commodities for sale.  The “Vision” designates the role of the school district as being the producer of “high quality services” that would be offered to these independent organizations so that they could “operate and manage” our schools?  I think it goes without saying that since these organizations would not provide these services without compensation; this means that we would also use public funds to pay for these “independent organizations” to run our schools. 

When did our business become to “create an entrepreneurial organization”?  Is this what you voted for last May?  I don’t remember anyone running on a platform to turn our schools into a business venture that we would pass on to “independent organizations”.

Buffalo Schools at the Crossroads: Buffalo News Gets it Wrong, Still!

If we lived our lives guided only by the information printed in the Buffalo News, we’d be living in an alternate universe.  One in which down is up, left is right and the new brown is black, for example.  The News would have us believe that the feature stories and editorials on the School District are “fair and balanced”, to borrow a phrase from another media outlet.  Yet, too often these stories and the companion editorials distort the truth, omit facts that do not support the slant the News wants to portray and most importantly purport to reflect responsible journalism.  The July 25th front page story lauding the New Majority Majority for reaching out to stakeholders and the follow up regurgitation in Saturday’s editorial (July 26th) illustrate this point.

The News is anxious to commend the new majority for reaching out to external as well as internal groups.  Citing members of the old majority as among the internal groups to whom the new members reached out, the News lamented “what more the new leaders could have done” to sooth the “still seething” old majority, now minority members.  The News failed to acknowledge that the “reaching out” was not a one-way street.  No one was rebuffed in this effort. The minority members were open to meeting with the new members to determine how we could work collaboratively in the best interests of our students and families.

But then in the same article, the News made a statement that “Most encouragingly, the new majority has made a point of including members of the board minority in decision making.”  Excuse me?  Oh, I forget, here’s another instance of that alternate universe experience.  The News continued, “The exception was the appropriately fast decision to hire Donald A. Ogilvie as interim superintendent.”  The Board of Education has the authority and responsibility to search, recruit, hire, supervise and evaluate ONE employee; the District’s Superintendent.  That is the responsibility of all nine members not just five.  The exclusion of four members from that process demonstrated poor governance, lack of transparency, violation of Board policy and ethics.  Further four public officers were denied the ability to represent thousands of Buffalo constituents.  It was a disgraceful act and one that flaunted the power of the five.  What would have been the response of the News and others, if the old majority had acted in the same privileged manner?  But then it appears that the “appropriately fast decision” was needed so that less than two weeks after his appointment Mr. Ogilvie could take off the week of July 21st.

As always there is much more that can be addressed but I will just point out one other misrepresentation in the News’ account of the “reaching out” process.  The old majority is accused of taking an “imperial approach” regarding seeking meetings with New York State Education Commissioner John King.  I speak from firsthand knowledge as the Board President who tried to get a meeting with Dr. King on several occasions beginning soon after my election in July 2013.  I had a personal conversation with Dr. King during which I requested a meeting.  The response was not a gracious one, so I will not repeat it here, but subsequently due to the intervention of Regent Robert Bennett, I tried to set up several meetings between myself, Dr. King and Dr. Brown to be held in Buffalo or Albany.  Dr. King’s concerns about attracting media attention resulted in these meetings never materializing.

I think that we should have no illusions about the Buffalo News.  These stories and editorials are purposeful and intended to support the agenda of the New Majority Majority and their supporters.  Let’s be clear, however, about the motives of the members of the old majority, henceforth the new minority.  We are just as committed to improving student achievement, resolving conflicts with stakeholders, reaching out to form inclusive alliances that will support our schools and more, as are the members of the New Majority Majority.  But we will not be complacent when attempts are made to exclude us or silence our voices.  As I noted earlier, reaching out only works when someone else reaches back.  It takes both actions to accomplish change.

Buffalo Schools at the Crossroads: The New Majority Majority’s Strategic Plan?

On July 1st, the Buffalo School Board convened for its annual organizational meeting swearing in two new members and a new President and, presumably ushering in a new era with a New Majority Majority membership.  Actually we didn’t have to wait long to learn what is being planned for the new era.  In fact, in less than 24 hours newly elected President James Sampson issued a six page paper entitled “A Vision for Buffalo Public Education”.  While Sampson stated in his accompanying email that he hoped the piece would “guide our discussions and decision making over the coming year”, two things are clear:  (1) the publication of this “vision” came as a complete surprise to at least four members of the Board, and (2) it was obviously something that has been in the works for some time.  The introduction is peppered throughout with references to “we”.  For example, one statement notes that “what we imagine for the BPSD over the next five years is the transition to a robust portfolio of high performing schools….”.  In another section, Sampson states that “Our guiding principle will be that effective teaching counts the most.”  This raises questions as to who the “we” are and who wrote this or contributed to this “vision for Buffalo public education”.

My response to Mr. Sampson shortly after receiving the “Vision” statement and reading it is as follows:
“I’ve read your vision statement.  It’s comprehensive and certainly offers many issues/concerns for discussion as you suggest.  Given that this was developed without the full input of Board members, I expect that the opportunity for discussion, indeed healthy debate, will be forthcoming.  If all Board members are to feel included, have their ideas respected and believe that all can have input into the final vision statement, then I expect you will want feedback in various forms, e.g. written, verbal and I look forward to the dialogue beginning immediately. “
Mr. Sampson’s response to me was quick and concise:  “Of course”, he said.

Ms. Belton-Cottman’s response to the Sampson document was even more pointed.  She asked:
“Since you have advocated for "good governance" and "transparency".... please explain who the term "we" used in this document defines or represents and when and how this consensus was derived?  Also since you have set an agenda or your vision, without all elected parties being involved you are ultimately saying by issuing this statement that you really don't care because you have secured the votes required to move your agenda.  Is this the reason why the job for interim has not been posted?  So are the "we" making an appointment of interim superintendent next week, at the meeting without proper vetting or respect of the other elected officials.  I believe under good governance and transparency, the board members not included in the "we" deserve to be equally informed.” (Reprinted with permission)
Over the next few weeks, I will share with the readers, the principal elements of this “Vision” statement.  It covers five strategies that Mr. Sampson believes the District needs to undertake:  (1) Parent and Student Choice (2) Structural Alignment (3) New Deal for Teachers (4) Interim Superintendent (5) Engaging Stakeholders.  Each of these is muti-level with numerous proposed action steps.

To be clear, I want to state that in each of the articles I write, I am expressing my personal opinion, but that opinion is bolstered by extensive knowledge and research of the educational issues being addressed.  I believe that the community should be aware of the major proposals contained within Mr. Sampson’s “Vision” as they are intended to chart the direction of the Buffalo School District.  In fact, it is critically important that members of the community be informed about these proposed vision statements as the future of our school district will be impacted.  YOU SHOULD/MUST BE ENGAGED IN THE DISCUSSION that forms the decisions regarding our schools.

Buffalo Schools at the Crossroads_The New Regime

At the July 9th Board of Education meeting, we witnessed the use of unmitigated gall and the practice of privilege by members of the Board’s New Majority Majority as they proceeded to push through the appointment of Donald Ogilvie as Buffalo’s Interim Superintendent.  This appointment was not the result of a process that involved the determination of a candidate profile identifying the desired expertise of the interim candidate.  Nor were there any elements of a normal procedure that one would expect for such an important and critical position, e.g.;  a thorough search process that included posting of the position, submission of applications, interviews with potential candidates or opportunities for public comment and finally vetting of the candidate’s credentials.  In fact if any or all of these actions were taken in hiring Mr. Ogilvie, the process also was marked by a glaring omission:  the exclusion of four of the nine sitting Board members; namely, Sharon Belton-Cottman, Dr. Theresa Harris-Tigg, Mrs. Mary Ruth Kapsiak and myself.

We first learned that Mr. Ogilvie’s appointment would be brought to the Board via an email from Board President James Sampson the previous Sunday.  We were also informed that the Board would meet in executive session to discuss Mr. Ogilvie’s contract, including his salary of $217,500.  Now, it has been alleged, by Mr. Quinn among others in our own community, that the four of us were invited to meet with Mr. Ogilvie, but we refused.  Besides being untrue, it’s an insult that anyone would say that any one of us would be so irresponsible as to refuse an opportunity to interview Mr. Ogilvie.  Further, when I asked the question, when was the meeting to be held?  Where was the meeting to take place?  If five members of the Board meet, then the public must be notified and the meeting has to be open.  So, was this to be an open meeting?  Where was the public notice? 

Consider also the fact that Mr. Ogilvie consented to media interviews days before the Board meeting during which he acknowledged his impending appointment.  That seems out of order, to me. Yet, he didn’t see anything wrong with the fact that he had not met with a significant number of Board members?   Mr. Ogilvie said he didn’t question the process used by the other Board members.  He said that wasn’t his job.  But I beg to differ.  As a professional with over 40 years of experience, he should have questioned the process and I think he should have reached out to the excluded Board members.  After all, the Board is comprised of nine elected leaders and Mr. Ogilvie is responsible to all nine of us!

When we refused to go into executive session to “receive” Mr. Ogilvie’s contract, it was not because we were “upset” women.  We are all conscientious and determined to perform our duties as informed, diligent and engaged members of the Board.  One only has to look at our records of attendance at Board and Committee meetings and participation in District committees and school functions to determine that we take our responsibilities seriously and are accountable Board representatives.  Because we had no opportunity, prior to Wednesday’s meeting, to act with due diligence in the serious business of the appointment of a long-term Interim Superintendent, we demanded time to have the discussion in open session.  In the two hour session, we also raised questions about, the terms of the contract for Mr. Ogilvie, the Board President’s authority to negotiate a contract without full Board approval and the responsibility of the Board’s special counsel in drafting the document before the new President had even taken office.  A critical part of the discussion spotlighted the Majority’s complete and untenable use of their five vote power to disenfranchise and marginalize an entire group of stakeholders.  If they did this once, involving such a crucial decision, will they do it again?  And will the community stakeholders, political, religious, business and other leaders allow them to?  Would they have allowed the Old Majority the same latitude?  I think not!
We encourage members of the public to view the Board meeting on television or on the Internet.  Again, I urge you to be informed and knowledgeable so that you can hold Board members accountable.  But you need to hold Mr. Ogilvie accountable, too!  Finally, during the session, Mr. Ogilvie, who had been waiting in the Board office was encouraged by Sharon Belton-Cottman to join the open session.  He tried to respond to the concerns that were raised and as he expressed later to the press to “bring down the temperature” at the Board table.   But as I said to Mr. Ogilvie that evening, he has a credibility problem that he will have to work hard to overcome. Obviously, Mr. Ogilvie has a lot of the characteristics and educational experience that some people believe the District needs.  I believe we already had the person that the District needed in Dr. Pamela C. Brown.  However, moving forward I will work with Mr. Ogilvie as we are both accountable to the students of this District and the fact of the matter is that the four minority Board members believe that our first duty is to our students.  We will continue to work to ensure that they receive a World Class Education.

Buffalo Schools at the Crossroads: A Hostile Takeover by the New Majority Majority

In my opinion, the Buffalo Schools are at the crossroads of a hostile takeover.  Before you respond by thinking/saying that’s an absurd statement or an irresponsible assertion, I ask you to consider the following.  If there was any notion that the New Majority Majority (Carl Paladino, Jason McCarthy, Larry Quinn, Pattie Bowers Pierce and James Sampson) was going to ease into their hostile takeover of the Buffalo Schools, think again.  And remember that their actions are not racist or sexist in tone and tenor – since that will be the first thing they will deny as they accuse the African American women on the Board of playing the race card.  But, take a look at the evidence and decide for yourself if the actions they are taking are not privileged and dismissive of the four other votes on the Board.

If you don’t think there’s a hijacking going on, what do you think about these actions being taken by the New Majority Majority Board?  First, less than 24 hours after the swearing in of President James Sampson, Vice Presidents Jason McCarthy and Dr. Theresa Harris-Tigg, along with returning at Large Board Member, Dr. Barbara Seals Nevergold and new Board members, Larry Quinn and Patti Bowers-Pierce, Mr. Sampson circulated via email a six page “Vision Statement”, which he described as being a document to “guide discussions ….” about the direction of the District.  Yet, before any discussion could begin, on the 6th July, Mr. Sampson sent out another email, detailing his decision to hire former BOCES Superintendent Donald Ogilvie as the new Interim Superintendent, for a two year term at a salary of $217,000 per year.

When did Mr. Sampson, and perhaps others interview Mr. Oglivie?  Without the knowledge or full involvement of the entire Board.  When was the deal negotiated and who participated?  Again, without the full involvement of the Board members.  Mr. Sampson tries to justify this fiat by stating that two months had passed since Dr. Brown’s departure was known with little progress toward hiring an Interim, yet attempts to get the Board to work on a transition plan were met with resistance and ultimately nothing happened.  Also this insistence that time is of the essence ignores the fact that there is an Interim in place who is very knowledgeable about the District, much more than Mr. Ogilvie!

Along with the appointment of the new Interim, Mr. Sampson has decreed that the structure of the Board meetings will be changed.  Gone are the Board recognitions.  Gone are the Superintendent updates.  Very soon, the plan is to remove the Public Comments section from the Board meeting and place them in a new community forum format.

Don’t forget that four years ago that Mr. Ogilvie was prominently touted as a candidate for the interim superintendent position supported not only by some board members but by the Regent Emeritus and presumably by the Commissioner, Dr. John King.  Note, that the Interim position is being given for two years, the same amount of time that Dr. Pamela Brown was given as the Superintendent. And now, having retired so fortuitously at the time when his services are so need in Buffalo, Mr. Ogilvie is ready, willing and supposedly able to take over this District and turn it around.

Buffalo Schools at the Crossroads_ Dr. Pamela Brown’s Legacy

The May 6th school board election established the Buffalo School Board’s New Majority Majority, which will take control and power on July 1, 2014.  But, of course the New Majority Majority began planning for the takeover long before the election.   During the electoral campaign, they telegraphed that one of their goals was to force the resignation or outright firing of the Superintendent, Dr. Pamela C. Brown.  For the better part of her two-year tenure Dr. Brown has been the subject of a coordinated campaign to undermine her position as Superintendent.  For example, the Buffalo News has waged a crusade to denigrate Dr. Brown, discredit her accomplishments, create public negative opinion and diminish her ability to achieve significant change in the District. 

Board member Carl Paladino built his 2013 election bid on a pledge to get rid of the Superintendent and the “Sisterhood” of Black Board members who championed the progress made under Dr. Brown’s tenure.  The New York State Education Department’s Commissioner, Dr. John King, appointed a “Distinguished Educator”, Dr. Judy Elliott, a month before Dr. Brown took office, ostensibly to aid the District.  Simultaneously during Dr. Brown’s superintendence he issued mandate after mandate, many unfunded, on the District.  These drained staff energies and resources and contributed to low morale.

And that’s really just the tip of the iceberg that Dr. Brown had to contend with.  The business community turned against her with such a vengeance that they secretly constructed a buyout plan that offered her a half-million dollars to leave the District.  When she vehemently refused the bribe, the Buffalo News chided her for not being prudent.   She should have taken the money and gotten out of Dodge!  And through it all, Buffalo’s Black community, the political, business, religious and service factions have remained silent.  Whether as a result of apathy, fear of retribution or “enlightened self-interest” remains to be seen.  The end result is that sadly, the African American community has failed to live up to the historic legacy of civil and social justice advocacy that undergirded it for the past two centuries.

The New Majority Majority has already begun to make its mark.  They have vowed to implement their pledge to terminate the Superintendent’s contract, even though she still has one year left on it.  They have posited an agenda that includes rapid “reform” of the school district in a supposed plan to “fix” it, retrench all the progress that they refuse to admit has taken place since Dr. Brown was hired and establish as many charter schools as they can create ASAP.

 An ultimate example of how “white privilege” is exercised can be seen in the “request” of incoming Board member Larry Quinn to be included now in the Board’s deliberations about the selection of a new Interim Superintendent.  Why, he asks, should Florence Johnson be sitting at the table making these decisions?  After all she won’t be there after July 1.  But, consider this; a Board member is a public officer, like the Mayor, a Common Council Member, an Erie County or New York State Legislator or the President of the United States.  You don’t get to make decisions as a sitting member of any of these bodies until you are sworn in!  Plain and simple!  But that answer doesn't seem to be sufficient.  Further, the new Board members haven’t attended any Board or Committee Meetings to date.  These are open meetings that one would think they would want to attend in order to get an understanding of the issues they will be dealing with once they are seated.

And then consider this, a current Board member, Mr. James Sampson, the presumptive President of the Board on July 1 and an incoming Board member, Mr. Larry Quinn were invited to meet with the Commissioner of Education, Dr. John King, when the sitting Board President, Dr. Barbara Nevergold,  was denied such an audience. What does this say about being open and transparent?  What changes will there be in the relationship between the Buffalo School Board and the State Education Department come July 1?  In addition, why didn’t this “adjustment” of the Buffalo Board/SED relationship take place earlier?  It was not a failure on the part of the past Board, as we tried.

But now, I realize that I digress!  This article was to be about the legacy of Dr. Pamela C. Brown.  So, let me conclude this piece (no doubt there will be more to come)for now and pick it up in a new article that adheres to that subject.