Sunday, December 21, 2014

Buffalo will miss Commissioner John King, Or will we?

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.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Buffalo Schools at the Crossroads: Clock is Ticking for Out-of-Time Schools

This Fall, New York State Education Commissioner John King declared that four Buffalo Schools were “out-of-time”.  These schools, East, Lafayette, Bennett High Schools and the MLK Jr. Multicultural Institute #39, were given several options to remain open or face closure.  The State and the majority members of the Buffalo Board of Education determined that one option was to have new or existing charter schools come in and take over any/all of the school buildings.  To facilitate this option, the majority Board members resolved to request that the State hold a special application process for new charters that, if approved would only operate in Buffalo.  The majority passed another resolution to ensure that existing independent charters could apply to lease space or the entire building of any of the out-of-time schools.  The caveat with this arrangement is that current students in the out-of-time schools would have to apply for admission to the charter, as they would not be guaranteed a space.

Other options to keep these schools open include:  conversion charter (these are charters resulting from a vote of 50% of the parents of students in the school and these schools remain under the authority of the School District and serve the students already enrolled in the school); an Educational Partner Organization to take over the operation of the school; a partnership with a SUNY College or University; or a new school that would be phased in as the old school is phased out.  In order to get proposals for this last option, the District issued a Request for Proposals.  These proposals are due to the District by Friday, December 12th.

As of this article, there are several very committed groups – one in each school.  These groups are composed of teachers, administrators, alumni, parents and other community stakeholders, who have been working diligently to develop plans for new phase-in schools for each of the out-of-time ones.  These groups are devoted to maintaining the schools as public schools of the District while addressing the problems that led to the out-of-time designation and creating an educational program that will result in better outcomes for our students.

After the December 12th, a group of evaluators appointed by the Interim Superintendent will review and rate each proposal.  Over the objections of the minority Board members, who demanded transparency, the names of these evaluators will be kept secret.  Of the 16 individuals, four are designated to be chosen from the charter school environment.  Following the selection process of the evaluation team and their recommendations, the successful proposals will be published publically and open meetings will be held for public comment.   I have also asked that a mechanism be established so that the public can give feedback online.

The Board will vote on the proposals which must be sent to the State Education Department by January 30, 2015.  State Ed will have the final say on the selection of a new model for the schools and can also recommend closure of any or all of the schools.  Time is running out for these out-of-time schools.  But there is still time for public input and comment on the final proposals.  Details will be shared about dates, times and places for you to share your thoughts.  Your input is needed and valued.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Buffalo Schools at the Crossroads: A letter to the Interim Superintendent Re: "RFP Charter Schools"

Rather than respond to this letter, on November 26th Mr. Ogilvie sent it on to the State Education Department with a request that they respond to the questions, in writing, to all Board members.

November 25, 2014

Mr. Donald A Ogilvie, Interim Superintendent
Buffalo Public Schools
712 City Hall
Buffalo, New York 14220

Dear Mr. Ogilvie:

This letter is a follow up on the discussions at the Board meeting of this date regarding the Resolution RFP Charter Schools, the subsequent passage of that Resolution by a 5 to 3 vote and numerous questions resulting from the same.  The Resolution proposes that “the attached RFP” be released for existing Charter Schools to make application to operate one of the “out of time schools”; namely East, Bennett, Lafayette High Schools or School #39, MLK, Jr. Multicultural Institute.

The attached document however is entitled an “RFS, Request for Space” not an RFP and does not appear to correspond to the RFP(s) issued earlier.  The RFS states as follows:

The Board of Education is therefore establishing a transparent (my emphasis) Request for Space (RFS) process for proposed charter operators to notify the school board that they would like to seek space in a district building and, at the board’s discretion, begin negotiations with the board.

Just as Buffalo Public Schools is considering proposals for conversion charter schools, educational partnership organizations, SUNY lead partner and local innovative programs through a Request for Proposals, this RFS process will enable independent charter schools to seek selection for operation in any the following “out of time” school buildings:

East High School
Lafayette High School
Bennett High School
Martin Luther King School

Applicants for an independent charter that seek space in one of these district buildings must include with the RFS any relevant application or other documentation that they submitted to a charter authorizer, if applicable. (my emphasis) Applicants are only asked to answer the questions below to the extent they are not addressed in such attachment.

1. What is the name of the school that the applicant is seeking to site? Please note that
BCSD is committed to building on the rich history and strong community ties of these four schools. Applicants must therefore submit proposals that retain the existing name as all or part of the name of the proposed schools.
2. What school building does the applicant seek to use?
3. Does the applicant seek (indicate all that apply):
a. Use of the entire school building
b. Co-location with one or more independent charter schools
c. Co-location with one or more district-operated schools
4. Does the applicant’s proposal require formal closure of the current school at the location requested?
5. Describe the applicant’s approach to:
a. Education
b. Leadership, oversight, staffing and operations
c. Community involvement
d. Finances, including school operational costs and any start-up operating or capital funds sought by the applicant

Applicants are asked to submit responses to the RFS as soon as possible, and no later than January 7, 2015, for operation beginning in the 2015-16 school year.”

My concerns/questions about this RFS relate to the questions that prospective charter applicants are asked as there are few or none that ask for any information about the charter school’s ability to provide a “quality educational program”.  What would these applicants offer that is innovative, creative and likely to result in better educational outcomes then the current program(s)?  What populations would they serve?  What are their admissions criteria?  How will they recruit students?  Further, the emphasis appears to be on the use of the building as the primary consideration and not on the educational program to be offered.  Also, what does it mean to “operate” one of the schools?   In addition, why is the date for submission January 7th, not December 12th?   Rather than a level field, it appears that these charters are being given an undeserved advantage.

I’m sure that I would be accused of making an “assumption” that there are already charter schools in the wings waiting to submit a proposal.  And there have been numerous disclaimers regarding this possibility.  But there has been too much work to get these Resolutions crafted (with the input and consultation of NYSED staff) and passed, that it’s difficult to believe that there are not several proposals waiting to be submitted.

Who will evaluate these proposals?  The same group evaluating the proposals resulting from the RFP?   Again the time frame for public hearings, input from the Board will be truncated considerably and not reasonable to provide a thorough vetting.

Another question, which has yet to be answered, even though I posed it several times in tonight’s meeting relates to the authority that the Board has to seek “Requests for Space” from independent charter schools in the instance of the out of time schools or any District schools for that matter.  A review of the Guidance from NYSED on out of time schools states the following:dmissions criteria?  I think by nowal outcomes then the c

“Guidance for Schools Districts Required to Submit Plans for “Out of Time” Schools

Consistent with sections 100.2(p) and 100.18 of Commissioner’s Regulations, districts with “Out of Time” schools must choose one of the following options to implement in identified schools for the 2014-15 school year:
  1. Close the school and disperse the students;
  2. Phase-out of the identified school and phase-in of a new replacement school;
  3. Contract with an Educational Partnership Organization (EPO);
  4. Establish an alternate governance structure for the school(s);  
  5. Convert to a charter school;
  6. Enter into a contract with the State University of New York (SUNY), or in New York City, the City University of New York (CUNY), to provide for the education of the students at the identified school(s).”

Where in this Guidance does it offer the option to the District to seek independent charter schools to take over the school buildings, co-locate in the school buildings, “operate the schools” or co-opt the school building space or program?

In fact, this statement appears in the RFP issued by the District:

“Independent Charter School - A Charter Management Organization may choose to apply to the Board of Regents or the SUNY Charter Schools Institute to operate an Independent Charter School at one of the four schools. An Independent
Charter School under a charter school operator or charter management organization must directly apply and be approved by a NYS chartering entity, either the Board of Regents or the SUNY Charter Schools Institute”

According to comments made by Mr. Quinn, conversations with SED staff have provided you and some Board members with information and guidance that all Board members have not been privy to.  I have included a copy of the motion passed by the Board in July 2013 regarding the requirement that the Superintendent share all communication with NYSED with the Board immediately upon receipt.  I remind you that this requirement is still in force.  The fact that a significant number of Board members, specifically the four minority members of the Board are not consistently given information communicated from NYSED or included in conversations with the State regarding important issues about the future of our schools impacts our ability as elected officials to represent our constituents or to make sound, informed decisions, which will have a serious impact on the education of the children in our District.  That is not acceptable.

I am requesting, in writing, guidance received from the State Department of Education officials that supports the Resolutions and RFS submitted and passed by five members of the Board.  I am requesting that all Board members be given the opportunity to participate in phone and or personal meetings with NYSED officials on these matters.  I am requesting that information be shared in a timely manner with all Board members.

Yours Truly,

Barbara A. Seals Nevergold

Barbara A. Seals Nevergold, PhD
At-Large Member

Cc:  Board Members

Buffalo Schools at the Crossroads: It's about Transparency, Honesty and Accountability

There is a steady march, by the new Board majority and its Interim Superintendent, toward making Buffalo Public Schools into a Buffalo Charter School District (in whole or in part).  From Mr. Paladino’s pledge to “disassemble” the District to Mr. Quinn’s resolutions to open the District up to “high performing” charter schools, their intentions are clear.  However, just that description alone implies that there are charter schools, which are not “high performing”.  That’s a topic deserving two or three columns in and of itself, but this article examines how the majority Board members are moving, by hook or by crook, to open the door to more charters even as they ignore efforts to support new programs in four out-of-time schools (Lafayette, Bennett, East High and School #39).

A secret meeting between Mr. Quinn, Mr. Sampson and Commissioner King held in June signaled the new Board’s lack of transparency.  Moving quickly after the installation of the new Board in July, the majority issued a “Vision Statement” and hired the Interim Superintendent without the knowledge or inclusion of the four minority members.  Throughout the last five months incremental steps were taken toward the goal of increasing the presence of charters in the District.  Recently those efforts have escalated beginning with the October 8th Quinn Resolution to request that State Education Commissioner King designate an unprecedented third round of charter school applications for Buffalo only.  As reported last week, only two charters had submitted applications by the November 16th deadline.  While that was surprising, an even greater surprise followed when the State immediately refused to consider either application.  Now what?  Of course, there is backup plan in the works.

Mr. Quinn introduced a new Resolution at the November 25th Board meeting.  This resolution allows “independent” charters to seek space at any of the four out-of-time schools.  This writer pointed out that it was premature to vote on such a motion given numerous questions, primary among them:  “What authority does the Board of Education have to give independent charters space in or the ability to take over the entire school building?”  This is an important question as turning over any one of these school buildings to a charter is not one of the options that State Ed has given to the District regarding plans for the out-of-time schools.  Yet this and other questions remain unanswered as the motion was passed. 

Following the meeting I wrote a four page letter to Mr. Ogilvie noting the continued exclusion of minority members from conversations with State Education officials and requesting an answer to the question about the Board’s authority regarding the Quinn resolution. (Letter posted on this Blog)  He responded by forwarding my letter to the State Education Department for a response.  However, in the last month members of the minority have written to the State three times, with little or no substantive response.  It remains to be seen as to the State’s response to this latest letter.  Even so, the majority of the Board continues with their plan to open our schools to a charter take-over.

The next few weeks will be a critical time for the future of East, Bennett, Lafayette High Schools and School #39, MLK, Jr. Multicultural Institute.  Proposals for each of those schools will be presented at public sessions and ultimately to the Board.  Community input is critical.  I urge all who are interested in public education to attend these meetings and let your voice be heard on the direction to be taken for these schools.