Sunday, February 22, 2015

When is enough, enough?!

A week has passed since the “historic” February 13th meeting of the Buffalo Board of Education.  I realize some will find the use of the term “historic” as questionable but I am using it somewhat in a “tongue in cheek” gesture.  And this meeting was, unfortunately, marred by the unseemly behavior that has come to characterize board meetings, including an unprecedented verbal attack on an African American female staff member by Board member Paladino.  Yet, the insistence of a vocal community and the persistence of the Board’s minority led to dialogue and compromise resulting in a rare unanimous agreement on a course of action presented by Interim Superintendent Donald Ogilvie. 

The outcome impacts the future direction of several schools;  pushed back on the proposed takeover of cherished Buffalo icons, Bennett High School, East High and the Dr. MLK Multicultural Institute by charter schools;  supported the recommendation of the Interim Superintendent of a longer-range proposal for a sustainable turn-around plan that even the State Education Department will have trouble faulting and acknowledged that the District has an obligation to meet the terms of an agreement it entered into with the Federal Office of Civil Rights (OCR).  This agreement requires the District to develop a corrective action plan to address issues of inequity in admissions to the criterion schools.  All in all, the Board agreed, for the first time, to seriously consider adopting plans that put the interests of our students in the forefront.

But even as I look optimistically toward the foreseeable future of working with Mr. Ogilvie on this plan, I am troubled by signs that actions are being taken to unravel the settlement that was reached on Friday, the 13th of February.  Almost immediately, indeed during the course of the meeting, Board President Sampson and Board member Paladino sought advice from the Board’s outside counsel.  Their goal -- to over-turn the ruling of the Board’s attorney regarding Mr. Sampson’s handling of a parliamentary process aimed to limit debate.  The Board attorney’s position was upheld, but Mr. Paladino is not a man to take no for an answer, especially when he wants to hear yes.  In fact, on the Sunday following the meeting Mr. Paladino signaled his intent to undermine the accomplishments from the meeting.  He gave a radio interview during which he continued to denigrate the Board’s attorney and personally attack her competence and credibility (sound familiar?).   It is a tactic; intimidation, bullying and name-calling that he has continued to use and to get away with, until recently. 

Dr. Gary Orfield, the consultant who was hired as part of the agreement with OCR, refused to be silent when Mr. Paladino wrote to warn him that the Board’s majority would not tolerate any interference or wait for the Doctor’s report before putting their plan into action.  To emphasize his message, Paladino sent a second email to Dr. Orfield and ended by admonishing him to “Stay out of our way, Dr.” Orfield wrote the OCR requesting that they intervene with specific directives to the District.  Following the Board meeting Paladino continued the threats in the radio interview and made other statements regarding Dr. Orfield’s credentials, motives and integrity.  Furthermore, he has pledged to bring a motion to the upcoming Board meeting to terminate Dr. Orfield’s contract.  Should this motion pass, the District would be subject to mandated enforcement of the agreement.  The Office of Civil Rights has tremendous latitude to withhold federal funds, for example, to force compliance.  Termination of Dr. Orfield’s contract would be a problem for the District and create a ripple effect with serious consequences.  It remains to be seen if the five votes are there to approve the motion or whether any attempts will be made to chip away at the agreement reached last week.  In any event I've asked the question before, but let me put it another way, when is enough, enough!

When do the so-called pillars of the community, who claim to be concerned about the “state” of the Buffalo Schools, stop looking the other way as one man causes such havoc?  When is enough, enough?!  When do we stop allowing Black women to be disrespected and vilified?  When is enough, enough?!  When do we stop being silent; as our students are characterized as “poor, suffering children trapped in failing schools”; as systematic actions by Board members to “dismantle” our school district are touted as “bold and innovative”; as orchestrated and sustained assaults designed to create a narrative of the District as the “poster child” for failing schools in the State, are routinely exclaimed by state officials and published in the media, even though there are other cities with worse records.  When is enough, enough?!  When is enough, enough?!

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Fight to Save the Buffalo Schools_Taking it to the Boardroom

Since becoming a member of the Board of Education, I have attended any number of meetings that have extended over hours, some as long as 6 or 7 hours.  During these extreme sessions we have addressed critical issues impacting our students, schools and staff.  And yes, these meetings have been emotionally charged and high drama.  The meeting of February 13th was, however, one of the most significant meetings of all as the stakes for the future of the District and the education of our children were the highest that they have ever been.  The new Board majority had every intention of ramming through a plan that would have begun the implementation of their goal to “disassemble” the Buffalo schools.

They summarily dismissed a Resolution proposed by Interim Superintendent Donald Ogilvie, which offered a comprehensive and measured approach to the phase out of several “out-of-time” schools; the phase in of schools to replace the “out-of-time”; the expansion of seats in two schools in good standing; the creation of several innovative programs, including a Newcomer’s Academy for immigrant arrivals to our City; and a plan to offer vacated school buildings for charter school leasing.  Noting the ambitious nature of this plan, Mr. Ogilvie recommended delaying some actions until the 2016-17 school year, but beginning others in 2015-16.

With little discussion on their part and citing the need for “urgency” as paramount, Mr. Ogilvie’s Resolution was quickly defeated by a vote of 5 to 4 (I’m sure you know who the four yes votes were).  Even as they touted their proposal as the only way to save the “34,000 poor, suffering children” in the District, the majority’s plan would have, in effect, set into motion the implementation of the “Vision” they created after taking office last year and:

·         given away prime school buildings, all assets in those buildings, utilities and more to Charter Schools,
·         closed existing schools without consideration for the future of the children currently in those buildings
·         forced a series of “directives” on the Interim Superintendent that would have essentially rendered him ineffectual in his job and given the Board (the majority that is) the power to establish educational mandates as they deemed necessary;
·         tied the implementation of new school programs to contracts with the teachers’ and administrators’ unions and established a Board committee to engage in the negotiations  creating the potential for the unions to sue the Board for not bargaining in good faith;
·         jeopardized the agreement with the US Office of Civil Rights, which is reviewing the District’s admissions policy for criterion based schools; Carl Paladino has written to the OCR consultant warning him to “Stay out of our way, Dr.” regarding the consultant’s request that the Board delay making drastic changes regarding school closures and Charter Schools.  The consultant has now asked the Office of Civil Rights to take a much stronger position that could result in the agreement becoming a mandate;

After a four hour, physically and mentally draining meeting, they weren’t able to approve their damaging measure!  Not only was this proposal not voted on, but continued dialogue – aka – a filibuster - forced by the African American women of the Board ended in a compromise Resolution that was essentially that proposed by Mr. Ogilvie at the beginning of the meeting. The ultimate lesson of this story is that might does not always prevail over right!  What stopped this “reform” juggernaut?  A Community effort!

With the refrain:  “Whose Schools?! Our Schools!  Who Decides?!  We Decide!  Concerned parents, community members and educators have rallied for weeks to call attention to the movement to destroy our District. To them, I say THANK YOU!  Mr. Ogilvie also should be recognized for having the integrity and the courage to stand up to the majority members that brought him to Buffalo, seemingly to do their bidding.  But against an increasingly hostile and controlling Board faction, he rose to stand up to deliver a plan that has the best interests of the children at the forefront.   He’s likely to suffer backlash from his decision, not only from the majority Board members but from other influential community members who support the “reform” agenda.  He needs our continued support as he works to fashion a plan that will support the education of students in this district.

Finally, I have to give credit to the “Sisterhood”.  Our refusal to accept a Robert’s Rules of Order process, which was designed to cut off debate and limit productive conversation, opened the door to the compromise that led to the acceptance of Mr. Ogilvie’s Resolution.  Our refusal to be intimidated by powerful, entitled and mean-spirited Board members was central to the outcome.  Our decision to filibuster, yes we did filibuster not “attempted filibuster” as the Buffalo News wanted to characterize our actions, prevented a vote on the Majority’s Resolution and led to the concessions, which omitted many of the strangle-hold actions the majority wanted to institute.

Friday, February 13th, was a red letter day.  But it was only day one in an ongoing struggle to keep public education public and out of the hands of privateers.  Contrary to the picture that the media wants to paint, this is about the children!  It’s always been about the children and will continue to be about the children.  We implore the community to support THE CHILDREN by supporting all the constituents who have come together to Save Our Schools.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Buffalo Schools at the Crossroads: Are Charters Smarter?

Are Charters smarter?  That was the question that my friend, Peggy Brooks-Bertram asked me recently.  Certainly, individuals who advocate for educational “reform” promote the idea that not only are charter schools superior to public schools but that they are the answer to turning around “failing” public schools.  Some even suggest that charters create competition that somehow will spur public schools to do better.  While Peggy’s question was a simple one, the answer is anything but simple.  Across this nation, there is a movement, supported by political leaders, business leaders, reformers and others to control the educational system (and by no small coincidence billions of educational dollars) by privatizing public education and promoting the “charters are smarter” credo.

One of the arguments that makes the response to Peggy’s question complex is the often repeated statement that charter schools are “public” schools.  In New York State, they are licensed by the State Education Department or the State University.  And they do operate, to some degree, as a public entity.  They are funded primarily by public dollars.  Charters receive tuition, from the public school district, for every child who enrolls in the school.  Further, services like transportation, food and some services for special needs children are paid for by the public school district.  Public school detractors are quick to point out that the per pupil tuition that charters get is much lower than a “comparable” per pupil expenditure for students in the public schools.  They fail to extract the legacy costs, e.g. debt service on loans for school building upgrades or staff retirement and health care costs.

Charters can be operated by non-profit organizations or for-profit management firms.   In either case, they can raise additional funds through independent fundraising.  Unlike public school districts, full disclosure of all monies that charters obtain is not required by the State.  In the last decade the popularity of charters has resulted in an increasing number of for-profit schools established more or less as businesses.  These “public” schools are also governed by private boards, instead of publicly elected or appointed district school boards.  This is not to say that all charters aren't transparent, but there are numerous incidents, across this country, of charters that have been mis-managed and/or de-frauded by their operators.  It’s a problem that charter advocates choose to ignore.

Let’s take a closer look at the argument that charters are “public” schools, which serve public school students.  Charter schools do provide an alternative to parents for educational choice.  Charters do not charge individual parents tuition since the taxpayers are paying that tuition.  But charters schools also have choice in the admissions process they use to select students.  A valid criticism of charters is that, in many cases, their student body does not mirror that of their public school counterparts.  The number of students with disabilities, limited English Language proficiency and students living in poverty make up a smaller percentage of charter populations than students in the public schools.   Charters can mold a more successful student body by sending children, who do not meet their standards, back to the public schools.  And in a disturbing report recently issued by the Civil Rights Project of UCLA, researchers found that “…the rapid growth of charter schools has been expanding a sector that is even more segregated than the public schools.” (Choice Without Equity:  Charter School Segregation and the Need for Civil Rights Standards)

But to get back to the question, “Are charters smarter?”   There are examples of charter schools in Buffalo that are preforming no better, and in comparison to some of our “failing” schools, worse on student proficiency measures.  That will be the subject of a separate article.  However, there is a dramatic example of charter schools not being smarter in the city of New Orleans.  Following the disaster of Hurricane Katrina, the State of Louisiana established the Recovery School District.  Systematically, the public schools were closed in New Orleans and were replaced by charter schools.  The New Orleans Recovery School District is now fully comprised of charter schools.   In the process over 7,500 teachers and other professionals, mostly people of color, were fired.  The result of this great experiment?  In 2014, the New Orleans Recovery School District ranked 66th out of 70 school districts in the State of Louisiana!  That is not an accomplishment.  Yet, even in the face of this fact, the New Orleans Recovery School District is held up as a change model for public school districts across this nation.  The moral of this story is that lies are being perpetrated to obscure the true answer to the question, “Are charters smarter?”

Are charters smarter?  The Governor appears to think so.  The Chancellor and the New York State Board of Regents seem to think so.  The power-brokers, businessmen, foundations and the media continue to beat the drum on this message. All are supporting the creation of new charters across the state and especially here in Buffalo, where we have more charters than any urban district outside of New York City.  We need to examine the facts.  We need to understand the role that the new Common Core Standards and standardized testing has on school and school district success.  We need to raise questions about the continued denigration of public schools and here I will say, especially the Buffalo Public Schools, to the exclusion of many of the positive and progressive accomplishments that are taking place.

This article does not condemn ALL charters as obviously there are successful charters providing educational opportunities to students in urban districts.  But like the public schools, there are charters that are not successful.  Are they then the answer to the problems we are having in our educational system?  Are charters smarter?  The answer my dear Peggy is, NO!

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Buffalo Schools at the Crossroads: It Should be About the Children!

Don’t lose sight of the forest for the trees.  It Should be About the Children!  If we applied talk about “transparency, openness and honesty” to the expression of disrespect and disregard by some Board members, we would find the evidence of such behavior written all over their faces.  Our students have noticed it, brought it to our attention and frankly been the example for mature behavior that the adults have only given lip service to.  As one student observed last Wednesday night, “I’ve seen board members sit and tap their pens and be on their phones and I realize that if the same behavior was to be executed by me or one of my classmates, we would be considered low performing”.  Pan to the Board table to find one Board member texting on his phone as he ignored the young man’s words.  Go to YouTube if you don’t believe me. 
Last week the distribution of a two flyers depicting all the Board members and others by racist, derogatory and demeaning caricatures ignited a firestorm that has threatened to eclipse the real issues that the Board should be addressing.  Really? Should anyone be surprised that something of this sort would happen?  For nearly two years one board member has been referring to the African American women, on the staff and board, as “clueless, incompetent, idiot, sisterhood” and probably much worse than that in private.  Furthermore, a recent email from Mr. Paladino to the civil rights consultant, who is studying the problem of equity in our District and suggested delaying the decision to hand over our schools, warned him to “Stay out of our way”.  These and other actions by this board member have invited this sort of “nonsense”.  Flyer Gate.

The timing of the release of these anonymously produced flyers is questionable.  But one thing that we should understand is that while the focus is on this piece, we are distracted from the very important issue of what happens to four “out-of-time” schools and the students, who are currently enrolled in them.  Even as the Board “debates” the merits of school developed redesigns and charter-school take over, one Board member, Larry Quinn recently visited Bennett High School and met with staff to outline their future.   I spoke to staff members, who were present during this meeting and asked that their names be withheld, but confirmed that Mr. Quinn promised the following:  The charter schools would take ownership of Bennett; Mr. Ogilvie will be leaving his position by April 1st; and a new Superintendent from the ranks of current principals has already been selected by the Board majority.  Does this sound like there will be a fair and reasoned assessment of the redesign plans as compared to the charter schools take-over?  It doesn't seem likely.  And nothing was said about the fate of the students at Bennett.  It Should be About the Children!

In the midst of the discussion of whether the vote will be to maintain Buffalo Schools for Buffalo students or give those schools to “public”, but privately run charters, there is a question of Mr. Paladino’s conflict of interest.  At the charter school presentations, I made a point of asking each for the identity of their landlord.  In two of the three cases, Tapestry and Health Sciences, the response was “Ellicott Development”.  CSAT also has a relationship with a subsidiary of Ellicott Development at its Hertel Avenue site.  Having free space should free up funding that would have a positive impact on the budget of these charters, which includes tens of thousands of dollars in lease payments to Ellicott Development.   Mr. Paladino maintains that he does not have a conflict and will vote to approve the charter requests.  Even reference to the Board’s Ethics Policy does not deter Mr. Paladino from his stated plan.

It Should be About the Children!  The school redesign teams have worked to develop credible, student centered, innovative plans to keep these schools open, thriving and serving Buffalo Public Schools children.  Mr. Ogilvie, Interim Superintendent, has proposed that the Board take time to develop a comprehensive plan that would include current plans to expand Emerson School of Hospitality and the opening of a Newcomer’s Academy for new arrivals to this country.  The State has given the District the flexibility to start the redesigned school programs in September 2016, which would allow time for thoughtful and rationale “tweaking” of the programs if necessary including considering the report of the civil rights expert.

LET’S MAKE IT ABOUT THE CHILDREN!  Voice your objections to the plan to turn over Bennett, School 39 or East High School to the charter schools.  Our children deserve to have a Board of Education that considers the impact of these decisions on them and does not use rhetoric about “34,000 poor failing children” as a smoke screen to “dis-assemble” this school district.

Buffalo Schools in the Crossroads: Now, the Governor Takes Aim at our Schools

I am almost speechless regarding the events of this past week. Governor Andrew Cuomo issued his State of the State Address, which included his plans for “educational reform”.  The Governor, in a graphic and stunning illustration of the old adage, “politics make strange bedfellows”, has joined Carl Paladino and his cohorts, who advocate the “disassembling” of the Buffalo Public Schools; label our children as failures; demonize our teachers; and champion the myth of the redemptive value of charter schools.

I have been writing this column for about six months.  When I started it, I entitled it “Buffalo Schools at the Crossroads” because I believed that the District had reached a critical juncture.  We could go in one direction:  movement to develop a reasoned strategic plan, conceivably including pushback on unfair mandates from the State Education Department, to correct our problems.  Or, we could take the path advocated by the new Board majority to dismantle our public education system.  Frankly, our best opportunity to take the road leading to incremental but steady growth in student achievement was diminished when Dr. Pamela Brown was forced to resign as Superintendent.   Unfortunately it now appears that we are being pushed down the latter path, thanks to powerful and moneyed forces that support the “disassemblers”.  Robert Bennett, Board of Regents Chancellor Emeritus,  Chancellor Merryl Tisch, local banker Robert Wilmers, and as noted the Governor are all weighing in on the urgency of “fixing” Buffalo’s failing schools.   Today, we are at the crossroads as well as in the crosshairs, referencing the increased targeting of our District by these powerful and influential detractors.

Now, I’m not a “whiner”, nor an “apologist”, nor “unrealistic” when it comes to the Buffalo Schools and the serious problems and challenges that have beset this district for decades.  Unlike that nameless Board member, who several years ago uttered the words, the “State Education Department is picking on Buffalo”, I have not made that claim, at least not publicly until now. But I believe that the District has been the subject of unfair and overly focused attention as the crucible in which all negative attributes of “failing” schools are  conjured up for display. 

The District received no credit for positive accomplishment, such as a significant increase in graduation rates over the last two years and incremental growth in some of our schools that resulted in their movement to the list of “schools in good standing”.  Also, when have you last seen any, in depth reporting of the arbitrary changes by the State in cut scores (those scores that determine pass/fail on the standardized tests) or a presentation on the merits of those standardized tests, which are used to test all children regardless of language proficiency or educational ability?  Or what about the mandate to send students from East and Lafayette to BOCES, which resulted in few positive gains for the students but a gain of nearly $500,000 for BOCES?

As for the Governor, like Chancellor Tisch, he too is pointing fingers at Buffalo.  He agrees with Dr. Tisch in wanting to make it possible for the State to take over “failing” Districts, like Buffalo’s.  He proposes increasing the number of charter schools, apparently believing that they have the answers to resolving our educational problems.  He also is in favor of continuing to use “high stakes” standardized tests.  They’re called “high stakes” because they not only determine student proficiency upon which school success or failure is based, but he plans to assign a greater significance to the use of these tests to evaluate teachers and determine employment opportunities, tenure and salary. “Aaron Pallas of Teachers College says it is unfair to use the Common Core test scores to gauge achievement because they have a different passing mark from the previous tests. Only 30% passed the Common Core tests, but the year before, 80% were passing. The teachers didn't suddenly get worse. The State Commissioner decided to change the standards.” (Diane Ravitch’s Blog)

And most disturbing, the Governor calls for breaking “one of the only remaining public monopolies,” referring to public education, while he’d increase the number of charter schools but not call for increased accountability of these privately run, publicly funded institutions.  Finally, it appears to make little difference that Buffalo is listed as the third poorest city in the Nation and that poverty correlates with student educational success or that New York State has been named as the most segregated in the Nation exacerbating the poverty impact.  We are in the crosshairs and those taking aim, plan to strip our communities of inclusion/participation in the public education system.