Thursday, May 28, 2015

An Open Letter to NYS Legislators Re: Mayoral Control of Buffalo Schools

May 27, 2015

Dear NYS Legislators:

On May 21st, Assemblywoman Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes submitted Assembly Bill #7680, “AN ACT to amend the education law, in relation to mayoral control of the city school district of the city of Buffalo”.  If passed this Bill will effectively disenfranchise countless voters in the City of Buffalo, and establish a dubious, at best, school management system which I believe will create incalculable instability.  As a sitting Board member, I speak for myself but I believe that I have a perspective that is informed by my knowledge of the complex issues facing the District.  I find it inconceivable that the Mayor should consider assuming leadership of the District without consulting the Interim Superintendent, current Board members or senior staff members.  If the future educational issues of the children are to be properly addressed as a result of Mayoral takeover, at the very least, the Assemblywoman and the Mayor should have a transitional phase as part of the proposed plan.  However, that is the least of my objections as I see the legislation as terminally flawed.

The legislation proposes to give the Mayor the authority to hire the Superintendent and to replace current Board members with his own appointees. The Mayor will also appoint a number of community advisory boards that would be issue oriented, e.g. English Language Learners, Early childhood education, general and mental health, and special education. The rationale for locating this authority with the Mayor is that it would allow the public to hold him accountable for failure to make progress.  Absent any extraordinary accountability measures, the public has the same option to hold the Mayor responsible that it does to hold current Board members accountable; that’s the VOTE.  Board members have either a three year or five year term, while the Mayor has a four year term.  It’s not clear what the advantage is or how the Mayor will be held more accountable than elected Board members.

Herein lies the crux of the problem with this legislation.  It proposes to strip authority from duly elected officials (current Board members) to empower another duly elected official with powers that are not inherent in his office.  Further, Mayor Brown has provided little to no information about his plans and how he will implement a model to direct the school district operations with less than three months before a new school year begins.  In addition, there’s been no opportunity for public comment or feedback.

There is always “talk” about the children and how this legislation is really about the children and that there is an urgency to change the current dynamics.  I don’t disagree with either the urgency or the need for change.  But, I have heard nothing to date that would provide an assurance that the change envisioned by this legislation will really be a positive one for the children.  I see only disruption and disregard for the children.

I urge you not to vote for Bill #7680.  It is antithetical to the democratic process.


 Barbara Seals Nevergold

Barbara Seals Nevergold, PhD, At-Large Member BOE

Friday, May 22, 2015

Buffalo Schools: Mayoral Control, Fact and Fiction

Several months ago, I described Buffalo as the State’s epicenter in the battle against the privatization forces that plan to “disassemble” our public school system.  The privatization movement has broad political, business and institutional support, as evidenced by:  the letter from New York State Regent’s Chancellor Merryl Tisch punctuating ongoing efforts to identify Buffalo as the poster child for “failing schools” ( ); Governor Cuomo’s use of the budget hammer to impose receivership in “failing districts” ( ); and most recently Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes push for mayoral takeover of Buffalo Public Schools.

It’s been in the works for a long time, but within the last few weeks the talk of mayoral control has inched toward reality in the form of a Bill submitted by Assemblywoman Peoples-Stokes.  On Thursday evening (May 21, 2015), the Assemblywoman spoke about her proposed legislation to a room full of community stakeholders at the Delevan Grider Community Center.  During the public meeting ostensibly called for the purpose of a presentation to detail the New York State budget boondoggles secured by the Assemblywoman for her District and the city, she could not avoid the questions from audience members who wanted to hear about the Bill she submitted that same day.  While the Assemblywoman said she prefers to refer to her Bill as “mayoral intervention” rather than mayoral control, the bill; A#07680 is clearly introduced as: 

AN ACT to amend the education law, in relation to mayoral control of the city school district of the city of Buffalo (A07680) 
Here are a few of the points the Assemblywoman made about the impact of Mayoral control, followed by counterpoints I offer for consideration and further discussion.  In full disclosure, although I’ve looked up the Bill and printed a copy, I have not had the time to read it thoroughly, so this synopsis relies on what I heard from Assemblywoman Peoples-Stokes about why the Bill is important and necessary as well as what she thinks it will accomplish. 


The Assemblywoman:  As preface, the Assemblywoman, a native Buffalonian, reminisced about her experience as a graduate of the Buffalo Public Schools and recalled the consistent leadership provided by Superintendents Manch and Reville.  She said that she sees mayoral “intervention” as an opportunity to change the internal construct of the District’s central structure and give the Mayor the authority to establish the right kind of leadership at the helm.  The Mayor will also appoint a nine member board, and a number of community advisory boards that would be issue oriented, e.g. English Language Learners, Early childhood education, general and mental health, and special education. Locating this authority with the Mayor would allow the public to hold him accountable for failure to make progress.

Me:  As a Buffalo Schools graduate, I too remember the halcyon days of Dr. Manch and Mr. Reville.  However, the educational landscape has changed dramatically in the last few years.  Research shows that the demands and pressures of the job have contributed in reducing the longevity of a Superintendent’s tenure to an average of 3 to 5 years.  So, there is no guarantee that the Mayor’s appointee will have a longer tenure.  In fact, this legislation, slated to have a two year life span initially, will coincide with the end of the current Mayor’s tenure.  A new Mayor may want to appoint his/her own handpicked candidate.
Absent any extraordinary accountability measures, the public has the same option to hold the Mayor responsible that it does to hold current Board members accountable; that’s the vote.  Board members have either a three year or five year term, while the Mayor has a four year term.  It’s not clear what the advantage is or how the Mayor will be held more accountable than elected Board members.

Board Members:

The Assemblywoman:  the Mayor will appoint all members of the Board as well as those of the Advisory Councils.   

Me:  The Bill does lay out criteria but in my cursory review there does not appear to be any great distinction in the personal attributes or professional abilities, compared to current elected Board members, which these Mayoral appointees would bring to the table.
In addition to being principal policy makers and having fiduciary responsibility for the District, a major responsibility of Board members is to hire and supervise the Superintendent.  In fact, by Education Law, the Superintendent is the Board’s only employee.  The relationship between the individual in that office and Board members is of fundamental importance to the operation of the District.  There is a risk of having a Superintendent who reports to the Mayor and also has reporting responsibilities to a Board; e.g.  the age old problem of the conflict of having two masters.  Working out this relationship will be critical.

 Superintendent Accountability:

The Assemblywoman:   The Superintendent will be required to provide quarterly reports to the Governor, the Legislature, the Mayor, State Education Department and the public.  Presumably this would enhance the accountability by creating layers of institutional monitors and allowing for quick changes of course if the Superintendent is not producing statistics aligned with progress.

Me:  Three years ago, former State Ed Commissioner John King appointed the Distinguished Educator.  This mandated consultant was required to provide quarterly reports as part of a plan to improve priority schools.  Frankly there is little evidence to demonstrate that any progress has been made as a result of this mandate.  She produced quarterly reports, which were submitted to State Ed only to disappear in the “black hole” of that bureaucracy.  How will this situation be any different? 
Further, the expectation that significant educational progress is going to occur in one to two years is unrealistic, especially given the upheaval this change will cause.  As my colleague Dr. Theresa Harris-Tigg observed, what this legislation will impose is a new “management system” that will do little to improve the education of the children in the District.

Finally, the Assemblywoman was asked what stakeholders assisted in the development of this Bill.  Although she refused to provide individual names, she said she consulted with a number of groups including the District Parent Coordinating Committee, Educators, New York State United Teachers and the United Federation of Teachers.  It would seem that such important legislation that will have such a dramatic impact on the system required the input of a broad cross section of community stakeholders and an open period for comment. 

This legislation aims to impose a system that will further disenfranchise voters in favor of power brokers and political bureaucrats.  There is a very short window of time to voice our opposition to this legislation but if you are concerned you must contact your State Legislators and let them know your opinions.  That is the democratic process and we should reaffirm that it works. 

Monday, May 18, 2015

What’s Next in the Superintendent Search? And will the News cover it fairly!

As an educator I am interested in and often fascinated by the ways in which the Buffalo News shapes and influences public opinion.   My concern is intensified and accompanied by disbelief and disappointment  when, as a participant or first-hand observer in a number of the News’ reports, I find myself at odds with the interpretation of the events as I know them and have experienced them.  Buffalo is probably at the most contentious time, in our history, in the debate over the future of our School District and the 34,000 children it serves.   An enlightened, conscientious, impartial and investigative press could bring truth and objectivity to this debate.

Unfortunately, the polarization of factions trying to control the Schools extends to the News, which long ago lost the right to claim that it is a fair and unbiased news outlet.  Too often the stories obfuscate the truth, mitigate the facts in favor of expressing reporter judgement or are written to sway public opinion on a particular version of the issue.  The News’ front page education stories often communicate an educational philosophy that is aligned with the Board majority’s reform agenda targeting “failing” schools, promoting charter schools as the panacea, school vouchers and more.  Unfortunately, Buffalo is not unique with respect to this mis-use of the “power of the press”.  It’s a sad commentary on the loss of journalistic integrity and ethics, long considered a cornerstone of a democratic society.

At its May 13th meeting the Board voted to conduct a “national” search for the next Superintendent.  It comes two months after a similar Resolution from the Board minority was voted down.  Before anyone is lulled into a sense of relief and belief that progress is being made on this critical issue impacting the future of the District, think again.  While Mr. Quinn offered a Resolution to conduct the search, it was lacking a substantive plan to guide a comprehensive and transparent process.   The Resolution proposed several “periods” including:  “of notice”, “to review and collate resumes, “to review resumes and select candidates to interview” and “to interview finalists and select a superintendent”.   It’s appalling and unacceptable that Board members, who’ve been touted for their business acumen, would offer a vague process for as important a responsibility as hiring the Chief Education Officer of a billion dollar enterprise.  Does this signal that perhaps yet again, five Board members have selected the next Superintendent?

Let’s be clear, the dialogue about the Superintendent search and the job posting would not have taken place at this Board meeting without the intervention of the minority members.  Previous requests for a special meeting to plan the superintendent search have been refused.  Therefore, Mrs. Belton-Cottman initiated the conversation by presenting a PowerPoint of a step-by-step search process.  She had previously emailed every Board member and asked for feedback on the action steps and timeline.  Rather than focus on the steps, majority board members immediately attacked the timeline, projected for a six month process, as too long.  But even before they spoke on the proposal, their non-verbal communication – they threw the hard copies of the presentation on the table and wouldn’t view the PowerPoint – spoke volumes about their disdain and refusal to join in a discussion about how to better fulfill our fiduciary mandate.  Persistence and insistence on the discussion by the minority led to important compromise and signs of collaboration.

The News continues to ignore the gross violations of good board governance, once hailed as a strong suit of the majority members.  At the same time they also neglect to credit minority board members for pushing for a prudent, professional and inclusive search.  Even as we work to move past the distractions that prevent a focus on student-centered issues, the News undermines our work and sincerity by labeling minority board members as supporters of the status quo.

The Superintendent search, including all the associated activities of the Board, offers an opportunity to hold the News accountable if it fails to report all perspectives related to this activity. The Board has a legal commitment to recruit and hire a new Superintendent; its only employee and arguably the District’s most critical employee.  If past behavior is any predictor of future behavior, the documented strategy used to hire Mr. Ogilvie and the attempt to appoint a principal as the new Superintendent, without full Board input should be of grave concern and a focus of media scrutiny.   

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Let the Search Begin!

Last week the Board majority decided to launch a search for the next superintendent of the Buffalo School System.  That decision comes nearly two months after the Board’s minority proposed and advocated for a search and barely a week after the vociferous objections of the community to the plan to appoint Principal James Weimer, without a search, to the position.  It also appears to be no coincidence that this change of heart comes on the heels of legislation submitted by Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes that would greatly change the leadership of the District. 

If successful, the new law would give authority to Mayor Brown to recruit, hire and supervise the Superintendent.  He’d also be empowered to dismiss current Board members and appoint 9 new members of his choosing.  In effect, this legislation would eliminate local control and undermine the democratic process of an elected school board.  There is still a lot to learn about the model of mayoral control that the Assemblywoman and the Mayor envision, but few of us see the value of governmental takeover and question the “reform” philosophy that under-girds it.  While there are many questions as yet unanswered, a principle one is whether the Assemblywoman will get the support she needs to move her bill forward.  With Albany politics being what they are, it remains to be seen how deals will be formed to reach this end goal.

As for the Board majority’s newly found determination to hold a search?  It’s likely the result of the community’s opposition, the Board minority’s systematic questioning of the exclusionary process used to select Mr. Weimer and the majority’s failure to identify the specific qualifications which warranted his appointment as Superintendent.  Larry Quinn, the spokesperson for the Board majority, plans to present a resolution at the May 13th Board meeting to conduct the search.  However, while this new found recognition of the Board’s responsibility to conduct a search appears sincere; the majority has refused to engage in a conversation to define the search process.  True to form, Mr. Quinn’s resolution demonstrates that the majority continue to plan outside of the full Board.  The resolution includes a pre-arranged public meeting to be held on May 21st.  He has already requested that the CAO organize this meeting in order to give “real parents” an opportunity to express their concerns to the Board.  Further Quinn claims that this will avoid the “circus atmosphere” of the last Board meeting.

The meeting, the date, and the organizers were all finalized without the knowledge, input or agreement of the Board’s minority.  Some things just don’t change.  Moreover Mr. Quinn’s message to parents and concerned citizens is that he’s still not interested in including parent or community involvement unless he can control who speaks.  He has expressed confidence that the search could be completed by June 1st.  He foresees Board members reaching out to people they know to apply for the job in addition to a job posting that will be widely published.  Mr. Quinn does not realize how unrealistic his timeline is or could there be another hand-picked individual waiting in the wings to take Mr. Ogilvie’s place?  Thus far, the actions of the majority while praised by the Buffalo News, do not engender trust and confidence that this search will be open and transparent. 
As of the publication of this article, attempts by the Board minority to have the Board meet to establish a timeline and set other parameters for a legitimate search process have been futile.  Board member Sharon Belton-Cottman drafted a document to initiate this discussion, but like the April 29th meeting, none of the majority members have responded.  Mr. Quinn has insisted that the job of selecting a superintendent is the purview of the Board.  We certainly agree with him on that.  In fact, we concur that the Board has the fiduciary obligation to do a diligent and thorough search for a new leader.  However, to do this the Board (all 9 members) has to agree to develop and implement an organized and comprehensive search process.

Here are a few of the key questions we have raised for Board discussion and decision:

  • ·         What time frame will we establish to guide the process from job posting, to selection of candidates, interviewing, vetting finalists, contract negotiations, setting start date?
  • ·         What experiences, competencies, credentials and evidence of successful educational management are we looking for?
  • ·         What questions will we develop to interview candidates?
  • ·         What criteria will we use to rate applicants to determine finalists?
  • ·         How will parent/community questions, concerns be incorporated into the process?
  • ·         In addition to the above, what will we require the applicants to present in order to demonstrate how they would address an issue impacting our district at the present time?
  • ·         What criteria will we use to rate applicants to determine the finalist?
  • ·         Once the finalist is selected, who will conduct contract negotiations?
  • ·         Start Date? Orientation and other phase in activities?

Undoubtedly there are questions that are not included in the foregoing.  However, what is critical now is that all members of the Board spend time developing the process and the timeline.  If “urgency” is indeed a critical factor in the selection of the next Superintendent, then majority Board members need to be willing to put in the time to ensure that the process produces the best candidate.  We Are!

Sunday, May 3, 2015

The 5th Vote

The Board minority has often acknowledged that an influential 5th Vote exists.  That vote is defined by many terms:  parents, students, educators, city residents, tax payers and concerned citizens.  Throughout this school year the 5th Vote has been perseverant, resilient, resourceful, knowledgeable, and steadfast.  And yes, the 5th Vote has also been vociferous and passionate.  But most importantly, the 5th Vote’s commitment to the children of the Buffalo School system is the foundation of their advocacy for plans, policies and people to address the educational needs of our students. One other characteristic of this group that has to be emphasized is that they are voters.  They participated in a democratic process to elect Board members, who, as public officials are obligated to listen to and consider the opinions of constituents in the decisions they make.  This is a fundamental right upon which this nation was founded.  To do anything less, especially in a system that promotes “community engagement”, is hypocritical and dishonest.

At last Wednesday’s Board meeting, the 5th Vote refused to be silent or silenced, even as the five majority Board members employed silence as another tactic of non-engagement.  Their refusal to verbally respond to members of the minority bloc or the 5th Vote communicated a lack of respect and dismissiveness.  Their stony silence contributed to the demise of their second, hand-picked Superintendent.  The question on my mind and others; Why wasn't this candidate defended by those who sought to give him the position as the Chief Education Officer of a billion dollar school district?  Was this an attempt to prevent open scrutiny of his ability to fill the position or was there little to say beyond “he’s a nice man”, a phrase used by one or two supporters. 

The plan to make Principal James G. Weimer, Jr. the next Superintendent was hatched in secrecy, without the participation of the Board’s minority or feedback from the 5th Vote including those who might have been eager supporters of Mr. Weimer.  It is reminiscent of the manner in which Mr. Ogilvie was hired as the Interim Superintendent.  For a second time, the majority board members have demonstrated a management style that is steeped in arrogance, privilege and exclusivity.  And now that Mr. Weimer has backed out of a really poor idea, what’s next on the board majority’s agenda?  

For now, it appears that they have two strategies.  (1) According to one member, they plan to try to talk Mr. Weimer into changing his mind and recommitting to their plan. (2) They've decided that the best defense is an offense (aka offensive plan) to blame everyone but themselves for this debacle; principally the unions.  Apparently they find it difficult to acknowledge that either the Board minority or the constituents have the intelligence and capability to oppose their ill-conceived plot.  They are masters at playing the “blame game” and thinking that no one is able to see through this thinly veiled excuse for failure to assume personal responsibility for their own actions.

What’s next?  The District MUST have a Superintendent – Acting, Interim or Permanent –  in place on July 1st.  The Board has a fiduciary responsibility to ensure that the position is filled with a capable leader.  Will the Board majority add dereliction of duty to their list of incompetent actions?  The Board minority has reached out numerous times to propose that we work collaboratively.  We have a legal responsibility but more than that, we have a moral obligation to the students we were elected to serve.

On Friday, May 1st, the Board’s minority sent out the following press release, imploring the majority to come together in the best interests of the District and our students.

“The Buffalo Board of Education’s search for a Superintendent collapsed today with the withdrawal of Emerson High School Principal James Weimer, Jr. for consideration for the position. Weimer was the acknowledged choice of the Board’s majority, who planned to appoint the Superintendent upon the premature ouster or planned departure of current Interim Superintendent Donald Ogilvie.  Ogilvie’s resignation on July 1st creates an urgent need for Board action to initiate a plan for the appointment of an Interim Superintendent, pending a more extensive search for a permanent school leader. 

The Board has the responsibility to work collaboratively to structure and initiate this process. 

The Board’s minority is calling for a special board meeting on Tuesday, May 5th to begin this critical work.”

We have heard nothing from the Board President regarding our request and calls to majority members were either unanswered or they refused the meeting.  It’s time for all members of the Board to listen to The 5th Vote.  We remind the Board majority that the 5th Vote has been cast.  It has demonstrated that its vote outweighs that of the majority.  It has demonstrated that the 5th Vote has power and influence.  The 5th Vote is growing; its voice is getting louder and will not be ignored.