On December 10th, New York State Education Commissioner, Dr. John B. King, Jr. announced his resignation. Dr. King revealed that he was joining the U.S. Department of Education as a Senior Advisor to Education Secretary Arne Duncan. To some the Commissioner’s decision signals concern and reason to worry about the future of education in the Buffalo Public Schools. To others, like me, King’s departure is a hopeful sign that the tyrannical, unreasonable and questionable mandates forced on the District under his administration will cease and the District will, instead, experience a new era during which a more collaborative relationship with SED can be developed that will support our efforts to improve the educational outcomes of our students.
It’s obvious that Dr. King has his supporters, but he also has many critics and not just those of us in Buffalo, who disagreed with him and questioned the motivation of the State Education Department in its dealings with our District. After all if one looks at other urban Districts in the State, especially Rochester and Syracuse, the questions have to be asked why these Districts, which have graduation rates and student proficiency scores below Buffalo’s, escaped the targeted attention that we’ve received. In fact it was puzzling that the Commissioner should cite a remark dropped by a former Board member years ago that the “Commissioner was picking on Buffalo”. It surprised me that as recently as this year, Dr. King admonished us for being whiners and making excuses as he again used this remark to punctuate his claim. He especially singled out the minority Board members as examples of the whiner/excuses group while praising the new majority for having a vision and reform agenda that aligned with his.
Throughout my tenure on the Board the relationship with Dr. King has been strained (that’s putting it mildly). Productive communication with the Commissioner has been non-existent and the District has been subjected to mandate after mandate with little time to respond to complicated demands with dire consequences for non-compliance. There are numerous situations that I can recount as examples of this treatment but for the purposes of this article, I will only cite the appointment of the Distinguished Educator.
In June 2012 just before the appointment of Dr. Pamela Brown as the new Buffalo Schools Superintendent, Commissioner King named Dr. Judy Elliott as the Distinguished Educator to the District. Per his letter to the Buffalo Board of Education, the Commissioner said Dr. Elliott “is considered a consultant to the Buffalo City School District and her services will be a charge upon the district. Among her other responsibilities Dr. Elliott will conduct an intensive review of district and school systems, structures, and operations and develop an action plan outlining goals and objectives for the ensuing school year that is focused on addressing the needs of the Persistently Lowest Achieving Schools and Priority Schools in the District. She will also serve as an ex-officio, non-voting member of the board of education.” Oh, and by the way, it’s the law. This appointment was made without the courtesy of prior notification or consultation with the Board or Dr. Brown.
During her tenure, Dr. Elliott has developed action plans but it remains to be seen what improvement has resulted from this work. In fact, given the continued pressure on the District during her term one would have to conclude that Dr. Elliott has not helped the District to improve its priority and focus schools. Dr. Elliott was appointed for a third term in June 2014. It should be noted that evaluation of Dr. Elliott’s performance is the purview of the Commissioner. However, as with her appointment the Board has never been consulted regarding her performance and as a matter of fact no evaluation has been shared or made public by the Commissioner. What does this say about accountability for someone who earns $190 an hour plus expenses, amassing a salary close to that of the Superintendent? Oh, and did I mention that Buffalo is the only District with a Distinguished Educator? Rochester doesn’t’ have one. Syracuse doesn’t have one.
Will Dr. King be missed? Most certainly. Should we be worried? Not in the least. His legacy, not just in Buffalo but across this state is one of oppressive mandates, seemingly personal petty politics, failure to dialogue with parents and other stakeholders, insistence on imposing the Common CORE and incessant standardized testing tied to teacher evaluation and other “reforms” that have not been validated. The results, however, have been detrimental to the educational system statewide. So as Dr. King exits the State Education Department and the Regents begins a national search, we must be vigilant to demand that the next Commissioner provide the open, transparent and honest interaction that has been demanded of us.
Note: As previously stated the opinions expressed in these columns are my personal views and are not intended to represent the views of the Buffalo Board of Education.