Friday, October 24, 2014

Buffalo Schools at the Crossroads_Buffalo Students Rock Mayor Brown’s Bully Free Bus Tour

Generally this column addresses the current problems in and threats to the Buffalo School System.  But even as we experience unprecedented attacks from within as well as from the outside, there is incredibly positive teaching and learning going on in the Buffalo Public Schools.  This week, I had the opportunity to visit a number of schools and see firsthand talented, articulate and personable young people, who have goals and aspirations for their future.   October is Bully Prevention Month.  In recognition of the need to send a message that bullying is a serious problem, Mayor Byron Brown organized a Bully Free Bus Tour this past week.  On October 23rd, fellow Buffalo Board members Mary Ruth Kapsiak, Patti Pierce and I boarded a yellow bus with the Mayor, Interim Superintendent Donald Ogilvie, Deputy Mayor Ellen Grant, Associate Superintendent, Dr. Will Keresztes, DPCC Members Byron McIntyre, Dr. Wendy Mistretta, P.L.A. Executive Director Mody Cox, Deputy Police Commissioner Kim Beaty and several other Board of Ed and City Hall staff to visit five Buffalo Schools. 

It was a great day, starting with breakfast provided by students at Emerson and a proclamation presented by Mayor Brown designating the month as Bully Free Month.  Next stop on the tour was at International School #45, where students, in grades Pre-K through 6 speak over 40 languages.  An assembly program for the lower grades featured illustrations on how bullies, people being bullied, bystanders and (new to me) upstanders each play a role in a bullying situation.  The key to stopping the bully, the children learned, was to be an upstander.  At South Park High School, we had an open and heartfelt dialogue with students, who shared difficulties that they’d encountered that would have been difficult for adults to overcome.  Yet with the help of school administrators and support staff, each of these students is on track to graduate and to move on to college next year.

The Tour continued to Performing Arts where we were treated to an awesome, multi-discipline (dramatic reading, performance art, dance, acting, vocal and instrumental music), student created performance on bullying. The finale at Waterfront included a greeting by the school’s band playing Eye of the Tiger and the Glee Club’s adaptation of Pharrel's “Happy”, transformed to the Attendance Song.  And while the Mayor’s Tour ended at the Waterfront School, Mrs. Kapsiak, Mrs. Pierce and I joined the students and faculty on October 24th at Lorraine Academy for the unveiling and dedication of their decorated “anti-bullying” Buffalo statue.  I ended my week of school visitation at my own Pre-K granddaughter’s school, Montessori #32, where I joined other parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles in the class’ first Family Day.

I wish I could describe more fully the programs I attended on the tour and the day after.  Space does not permit such a detailed presentation.  However, I want to end by saying that of the seven schools I visited, I had the following take-aways.  Now, even though I know this, it was reinforced that Buffalo Schools have a very diverse population of students.  Therefore each has its own unique culture.  And within this unique culture, children are learning, children are thriving and children are nurtured as well as educated by their teachers and other educational professionals.  The State Education Department has forced us to measure our students by one yard stick.  Within our own families, we know that no two children will develop exactly the same, even when their parents try to parent them in the same way.  Teachers need the freedom to develop and use teaching strategies that address the unique learning styles of different students.  And students need the individualized attention in order to reach their potential.  I encourage the readers to take a closer look at the Buffalo Schools.  Don’t believe the hype. There are a lot of good things going on in our schools.  And the students in the Buffalo Schools ROCK!

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

New Voices Call for Openness, Transparency and Inclusion

“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— 
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— 
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.” Martin Niemöller, Protestant Pastor (an outspoken public foe of Adolf Hitler, who spent seven years in concentration camps)

After reading the above quote, some individuals may question if our current education crisis warrants comparison to the world crisis that provoked this pronouncement.  The answer lies in Pastor Niemöller’s underlying and timeless message - silence in the face of tyranny and cruelty or in today’s situation, deceit, collusion and coercion is ultimately tacit approval and ends up harming the bystander, who looks the other way and fails to speak out.

Last week a group of people decided it was time to speak up, loudly and clearly, in opposition to the actions of the current majority membership of the Buffalo Board of Education, the Interim Superintendent and the Commissioner of Education.  Operating on a “Vision Statement”, which proposes an agenda that turns over our schools to private sector operators, the new majority rammed through several resolutions on October 8th, which asked Commissioner John B. King, Jr. to create an unprecedented third round for charter school applications exclusively for Buffalo.  In response to the Board vote, operating on what can only be described as lightning speed,  by October 10th the New York State Education Department posted a call for “Prospective Charter School Applicant Groups and Charter School Operators – Buffalo ONLY” on its website. To increase the likelihood of numerous applications the State is dangling a potential grant of $750,000 as an additional incentive.

The majority Board members refused to allow time for community input in the decision.  But now new voices are being raised against their actions and their “Vision”.  On Thursday, October 16th, these voices joined in a speak- out about the lack of transparency, openness and honesty.  Led by parents, community members and activists from Citizen Action, P.U.S.H. Buffalo and Alliance for Quality Education, they called a press conference that was held in front of Lafayette High School, one of the targeted schools. They voiced their opposition to decisions made in secret; decisions that excluded the minority members of the Board; decisions that excluded the parents of the District, the students and other stakeholders; decisions that open the District up for private take-over.  They voiced their concern that plans to turn at least four schools, East, Lafayette, Bennett and MLK, Jr. Institute over to Charters will result in a move to privatize more schools in the District ending in fewer resources for remaining schools and students.  And they pledged to call on others to break their silence and turn up the volume in support of our children.  

Yes, we are at a critical juncture….we can’t afford to remain silent or ignorant of the facts while they come for our schools.  Get involved.  Our children need you.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

An Open Letter to Commissioner John B. King, Jr.: Opposing Privatization of Buffalo Schools

October 10, 2014

Commissioner John B. King, Jr.
New York State Education Department
89 Washington Street
Albany, New York 12234

Dear Commissioner King:
As members of the Buffalo Board of Education, we are writing to you with (1) a request for clarification regarding a recent communication to the Board and (2) to express a number of related concerns we wish to bring to your attention.  On October 7th, 2014, Interim Superintendent Donald Ogilvie received a letter (attached) from Mr. Ira Schwartz, Assistant Commissioner, Office of Accountability, regarding your designation of East and Lafayette High Schools as “Out of Time Schools” along with mandates for the District regarding those schools as well as Bennett High School and Martin Luther King, Jr. Multicultural Institute School #39.  This letter was shared with Board members via email late afternoon of the 7th October.

As you know the letter required that the District provide a response to your office by October 20, 2014.  Subsequently, Mr. Ogilvie, in consultation with Mr. Schwartz, crafted Resolutions regarding the District’s intentions/proposed timelines and options consistent with the Commissioner’s Regulations 100.2(p), 100.18 for East and Lafayette High Schools.  These Resolutions included, at the suggestion of Mr. Schwartz according to Mr. Ogilvie, a statement that read:

6. The Buffalo Board of Education requests that the NYS Commissioner of Education approve a third round of charter school applications for start-up in the 2015-16 school year with the intent of securing charter applications for any of the four Buffalo Schools which are in phase-out/phase in:  Bennett High School, Martin Luther King, Jr. Multicultural Institute, East High School and Lafayette High School.

The Board received the revised Resolutions on Wednesday afternoon, October 8th a few hours prior to the Board meeting.  The Interim Superintendent presented his recommendations and the newly revised Resolutions at the Board meeting that started at 5:30 pm. Following Board discussion of approximately 30 to 45 minutes, an amendment was made and the language in the foregoing was modified to read as follows:
APPROVED, a motion made by Mr. Quinn, seconded by Mr. McCarthy, that the Buffalo Board of Education requests the NYS Commissioner of Education approve a third round of charter school applications for start-up in the 2015-16 school year with the intent of securing charter applications for any of the four Buffalo Schools which are in phase-out/phase-in:  Bennett High School, Martin Luther King Jr. Multicultural Institute, East High School and Lafayette High School or any other location in Buffalo.  The roll call vote resulted as follows:  5 – Ayes (McCarthy, Paladino, Pierce, Quinn and Sampson), 3 – Noes (Belton-Cottman, Kapsiak and Nevergold), 1 – Absent (Harris-Tigg).  Motion carried.

Request for Clarification:
With the foregoing background, the following questions are posed for clarification.  In reviewing the Commissioner’s Regulations 100.2(p), 100.18; Guidance for School Districts Required to Submit Plans for “Out of Time” Schools
We do not see where the Regulations include Independent Charter Schools as one of the Options offered under these Regulations.  Therefore, is it proper, appropriate or legal to include reference to this alternative in the District’s response to the Commissioner’s mandate? 
Second, the letter and your directive were specific to Bennett, East and Lafayette High Schools and Martin Luther King Jr. Multicultural Institute #39.  The addition of the request in the above motion, “or any other location in Buffalo” appears to us to exceed the Commissioner’s mandate and should not be part of this motion, if the motion itself is indeed proper.

Please advise

Additionally, the Guidance for School Districts Required to  Submit Plans for “Out of Time Schools”
States that in order for the District’s Plan to be approved, it must include evidence that the District has ensured compliance with a number of actions including the following:
7 Evidence that the district provided parents, teachers, administrators, and community members an opportunity to participate in development of the plan pursuant to Commissioner’s Regulations 100.18(m)(5)(iii), 100.18(m)(6)(i)(b), and 100.11. Additionally, the district must address how it will involve parents, teachers, administrators and others in the development of the new school prior to the beginning of the 2014-15 school year.

The rush of the Interim Superintendent and some members of the Board to respond to Mr. Schwartz’ letter has denied open and transparent communication with the school communities impacted and the community in general.  As noted both the Board and the Interim Superintendent received Mr. Schwartz’ letter on October 7th.  Resolutions and revisions were hastily put together for the meeting on October 8th.  While the October 20th date required prompt attention, we do not believe that the Board should have or needed to vote on its response on October 8th, one day after receiving Mr. Schwartz’ letter.  The Board has scheduled Committee meetings on October 15th that would have given us enough time to inform/engage the community and meet the State’s deadline.
We offer this time frame as it is reflected in the concern we have about the time and diligence devoted by the Interim Superintendent and the Board in making such an important and impactful decision.

Not only did the Board ignore the requirement to engage parents as stated above, the Board also ignored its own Policy #1510, which states: 
No committee, nor the entire Board, will act, study, or decide upon an issue unless the supporting documentation has been made freely available to all Board members at least 48 hours in advance of the above mentioned action, with the exception of “Late Items” filed as such by the Superintendent for action at a regularly scheduled meeting of the Board. This provision may be suspended by an affirmative vote of six members of the full Board (2/3) upon the motion of one of its members and must be approved by an affirmative vote of six members of the full Board (2/3).

And Policy #1511
The Board of Education shall not attempt to decide upon any question under consideration before examining and evaluating relevant information.  The Superintendent of Schools shall be given an opportunity to examine and to evaluate all such information, and to recommend action before the Board attempts to make a decision.

Finally, in addition to the clarification we’ve requested, we also ask that you require the Board to reconsider its submission and allow for public discourse, in the interest of open and transparent communication.
Yours truly,

Barbara A. Nevergold, PhD, At-Large Member

Sharon Belton-Cottman, Ferry District Member

Theresa Harris-Tigg, PhD, East District Member

Mary Ruth Kapsiak, Central District Member

Buffalo Schools at the Crossroads: The Truth Will Out

In last week’s article, I cited an interview with New York State Commissioner of Education, Dr. John B. King, Jr., which referenced comments and sentiments confirming his agreement with and support of the positions taken by the new Board majority, majority and their hand-picked Interim Superintendent, Donald Ogilvie.  On September 18th, the date of Dr. King’s visit to Buffalo, he seemed also to say that he thought it would take time to see if this group made good on their plans to reform the District.  What the Commissioner didn’t say, however, was that he would soon be issuing a new mandate that would assist in moving that reform agenda.  In spite of the fact that the majority agreed to revise a Vision Statement that included the input of all Board members, they are moving ahead on setting up mechanisms to privatize the Buffalo Schools and create a Charter School District that will not serve the least and the left-out in their schools. Independent Charter Schools will inherit our buildings, not necessarily the children in those buildings because they will be free to set their own admissions criteria.   

On October 7th, the Commissioner sent a surprise new mandate to the District that informed the Board that East and Lafayette High Schools were, in addition, to Bennett and MLK Institute #39 being declared “Out of Time Schools”.  He ordered the Board to provide a timeline for the next steps for these schools, which could include, per the Commissioner’s Regulations 100.2(p) and 100.18, closure, phasing out and phasing in a new school, converting the schools to charter schools (the conversion process is different from allowing a charter group to take over the school) partnering with the State University of New York to operate the schools or entering into an agreement with an Educational Partner Organization.  Independent Charters are not explicitly cited in these Regulations:

The Commissioner gave the Board until October 20th to respond to this new order.  However, within a 24 hour time span, Mr. Ogilvie drafted a set of Resolutions that he presented to the Board for adoption at its October 8th meeting.  Members of the Board’s majority proceeded to amend the Resolutions to request that the Commissioner offer a new exclusive round for independent charter school applications that only applied to Buffalo.  Over the objections of the Board’s minority, who requested time to consider all implications of the Commissioner’s new mandate; time for open and transparent communication to the community; and time to engage the parents and other stakeholders in the affected schools, the majority passed the Resolutions.
These Resolutions were rammed through the Board, in record time!  Why?  The “Vision Statement” issued by the new majority in July when they took office proposed an agenda that turns over our schools to private sector operators.  In other words this action is part of a reform agenda that has roots in a nation-wide privatization plan for public education.  It is well-planned, orchestrated, well financed and supported at the highest level of the state’s educational hierarchy.  You might ask if I’m being over dramatic or dabbling in conspiracy thinking.  All I have to say to that question, for now, is that you should check out the New York State Education Department’s website, where you’ll find a posting for “Prospective Charter School Applicant Groups and Charter School Operators – Buffalo ONLY”.  The date of this posting?  October 10th, first thing in the morning    To increase the likelihood of numerous applications the State is dangling a potential grant of $750,000 as an additional incentive.

We need your support.  Call/write Mr. Ogilvie and let him know you object to his actions – 816-3575.  The community should have an open and transparent session(s) to get information about the meaning of this mandate.  Also Call/write the Commissioner,    Your voices can make a difference.

Buffalo Schools at the Crossroads: Commissioner John B. King, Jr., Cheerleader for the New Majority

I’ve written on several occasions about the strategic messaging of the Buffalo News regarding former Superintendent Pamela C. Brown and the minority members of the Board of Education.  Their stories have been consistently negative and biased or have purposely omitted information that might have given readers a more balanced view of the Superintendent and Board members, particularly the significant student outcomes achieved during her tenure and the role of the majority members in undermining Dr. Brown.  But I have to admit that there are stories that even the Buffalo News cannot manipulate to hide their veracity.  Some stuff you just cannot make up.  I offer the following comments by New York State Education Commissioner Dr. John King during a recent interview.   Over the past two years Dr. King has used his regulatory powers to issue numerous mandates and compliance orders to the District.

Dr. King made a surprise visit (none of the minority Board members knew he was coming) to Buffalo on September 18th.  As he normally does, he met with the News’ education reporter.  His remarks about the School District, three months after Dr. Brown’s departure, were reported in an article entitled “State is giving School Board more time to enact reform:  Education Chief optimistic on new majority’s agenda” and are strikingly candid about the Commissioner’s acceptance and support of the New Majority faction of the Buffalo Board of Education to the exclusion of the minority members.

Specifically, Dr. King:

·         Credited the new majority for making amends with the State (especially since current Board President James Sampson and At-Large Member Larry Quinn went to Albany for a secret meeting with the Commissioner before the new majority took office; they claim no deals were made, but it’s obvious that the Commissioner and the Board members reached some agreement; perhaps about the selection of the Interim Superintendent as noted in the article)

·         Commended the new majority for hiring Don Ogilvie as Interim Superintendent; the article acknowledged that Mr. Ogilvie is a mentor of the Commissioner

·         Approves of the new majority’s philosophy on educational reform because it aligns with the Commissioner’s own philosophy

·         Is “more optimistic than at any other time” about the future of the District (under the leadership of the new majority and Mr. Ogilvie)

·         “Championed” the new majority’s creation of a “Vision Statement”, even though that statement was created without the knowledge, involvement or input of the four minority members
·         Ignoring this obvious exclusion of a significant part of the Board,  Dr. King stated that the task of the new majority is to “transfer their vision statement into some concrete plans”

As if the foregoing wasn’t enough to paint a portrait of the bias of the Commissioner of State Education in favor of a Board faction comprised of only the majority members, the Commissioner concluded his interview with the most outrageous and revealing statement of his dismissive attitude toward the African American women minority members of the Board by saying:
“I’ve been at the department for five years,” King said. “Up until three months ago, you would regularly have members of the board majority or the superintendent saying, essentially, that the state was picking on the district to expect better outcomes. So now you have the board leadership and the district leadership saying that ‘We believe that schools can be the difference for kids. We believe that schools matter. We believe that poverty doesn't determine outcomes, that we can overcome the obstacles that poverty creates if we improve schools.’”

Like I said, you just can’t make this stuff up!