Monday, August 31, 2015

That Was the Week that Was!

Before Jon Stewart and the “Daily Show” there was David Frost and “That Was the Week that Was”.  For those of you who need a refresher and for those for whom this is historic data, here’s a brief overview of the program.  Originally produced in the United States from 1963-65, TW3 was a pioneering satirical and comedic television show.  The broadcast lampooned topical events, which were all the “buzz” the previous week.  A British import, it was hosted by British newsman, David Frost and also featured musical skits.  Buffalo’s search for a Superintendent has provided more than its share of news “vignettes” worthy of parody by this legendary program.  Yet even as we successfully concluded the search last week several events reminded me of TW3 and the biting commentary the program might have created with this material.

The selection of Dr. Kriner Cash as Superintendent ended months of uncertainty and concern about the leadership of the district.  In an unprecedented vote, seven of the nine Board members unanimously confirmed Dr. Cash for the position.  Two Board members were not in attendance at the special meeting called for that purpose.   Mrs. Kapsiak, disabled by recent surgery, arrived at the meeting too late for the vote but in time for the Press Conference and to affirm her support for Dr. Cash.  Mr. Paladino was on vacation in Paris.  Members were invigorated and encouraged by this rare achievement of Board cohesiveness and the near universal consensus that we indeed have the right man for this time of travail.  Our euphoria was short lived. 
Not one to let distance and a vacation interfere with his First Amendment rights, Mr. Paladino fired off an email in which he accused New York Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia of being a “rookie” who had “rammed the new Superintendent up our …….”.  He threatened Dr. Cash and promised to fashion a “career-ending casket” if he “messed with me”.  Can’t you just envision the fun that TW3 would have with that image?  Even the Buffalo News could not resist its own parody of this latest Paladino insult. 
The Sunday morning edition featured the Paladino email in graphic detail followed later in the week by an editorial suggesting that Mr. Paladino lived in “Paladinoland” a mythical place where all things Paladino are given credence and sanction. The editorial concluded:  “To summarize: Do what Paladino says, and the nation will salute; have his (Cash) own ideas, and it’s cemetery time. Only in Paladinoland – or maybe Trump Tower – is that kind of invective interpreted as normal or acceptable.”
Inexplicably, Mr. Paladino, apparently had second thoughts about the degrading email, and is quoted as saying about Dr. Cash, “I wish him well. I want him to do good.” Pardon my skepticism!
Dr. Cash’s first Board meeting was fairly uneventful (as Board of Education meetings go).  Even Mr. Paladino was quietly reflective during most of the meeting.  The normal divisions on the Board returned at the end of the meeting, however, when Dr. Harris-Tigg and I presented a resolution and motion for consideration and a vote.  Dr. Harris-Tigg’s Resolution called on the Board to define and limit the time Special Counsel, Karl Kristoff spends at the Board meetings; cited concerns about the lack of a formal agreement between Mr. Kristoff and the District and the rising legal costs accruing as a result of the attorney’s routine attendance at the Board meetings. Her arguments were brushed aside and the Resolution was defeated by a 5-3 vote.

My motion called on the Board to end the longstanding silence of the Board as a body and its failure to address Mr. Paladino’s inappropriate behavior and actions. The motion read: “Move that the Board of Education formally, go on the record opposing the ongoing actions/behaviors of Board Member Carl Paladino noting that these actions are willfully counter-productive, un-professional, lacking in civility, harmful to the District and contradict the Board’s Codes of Conduct/Ethics.  Further that the Board acknowledges its members’ roles as District Leaders and role models for our students and the school community in general and as such does not condone behaviors and actions by any member that would communicate the Board’s tolerance of behavior that violates our own Code of Conduct or Code of Ethics.”

As usual, majority Board members continued to respond to this issue with stony silence, deflecting their attention to their cell phones or tablets and ultimately voting the motion down.  Surprisingly, even Board President James Sampson, who has been the recipient of numerous Paladino “smear-mails” voted against this motion. In typical style Paladino defended himself saying he had the right to talk about any of us, however he pleases, and besides he “tells the truth”.   TW3 would have had a field day with this one.

The final takeaway from all of this is that the Board majority is unconcerned about their hypocritical stance and the messages sent to our children by this failure to act on a matter that mirrors  situations they often confront.  We require them to obey the Dignity for All Students Act while Board “leaders” are allowed to intimidate, harass and bully with impunity.

That’s no laughing matter, even for TW3.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Why Dr. Kriner Cash?

Why Dr. Kriner Cash?  This is a question that many of you have been asking.  First, I want to be perfectly clear that my answer to that question is my personal response.  I am not speaking on behalf of any other individual Board member or the Board as a body.  Before answering the question, however, for context let’s take a look back at the “history” of this recent search for a Superintendent.  I’ve only been involved in one other search for a Superintendent but I think it’s safe to say that, from the outset, the course of this search cannot be considered as a routine process.   

The initial search actually focused on the selection of a Deputy Superintendent.  The plan of majority board members was to elevate that individual to the Superintendent’s seat once Mr. Ogilvie departed.  Minority Board members objected, as did the community, and advocated for a comprehensive search to include local and national applicants.  The majority opposed this plan arguing for local candidates only.  Yet, at the same time talks were underway between majority board members and at least one national candidate, the former Superintendent of Rochester Schools, Jean Claude Brizard.   When Dr. Brizard declined and the Deputy Superintendent plan fell through an agreement was reached in early May to launch a wider search.  By this time, however months had been lost and Mr. Ogilvie’s term was coming to a close on June 30th.  While most members of the Board worked to come to consensus, Mr. Paladino refused to honor the search agreement.    Determined to catapult his second internal candidate into the position, he refused to interview any candidates.

Setting an aggressive timetable, the remaining Board members pressed on reviewing and identifying prospective candidates to interview.  Nearly 20 applications were submitted, but before interviews could be confirmed one of the most viable candidates withdrew his application.  Five individuals – three internal and two external candidates -- were asked to submit a 100-day entry plan and were scheduled for interviews.  Following their interviews, the two external candidates withdrew their names from further consideration.  There was no consensus on finalists among the remaining candidates.

Enter Dr. Cash.    I’ll be candid; I went into Dr. Cash’s interview with a preconceived bias and a determination to dismiss him as a viable candidate.   My concern stemmed from the advocacy for Dr. Cash by New York State Commissioner of Education, MaryEllen Elia. Although the Board was at a critical juncture in the search process, the Commissioner’s involvement in a local personnel matter is unprecedented.  It raised questions about the allegiance of this candidate, his philosophy and intentions regarding a reform agenda and his ability to act independently of Albany directives as well as the directives of the majority faction of the Board.  An over-riding question; Will the Board be exchanging one handpicked superintendent for yet another? One who has Albany ties?  During her first visit to Buffalo, just 9 days on the job, Commissioner Elia promised (some say threatened)  to use the full authority of her position to impose change in the Buffalo Schools if the Board couldn’t get the job done.  Finally, even as the State constructs the receivership model, the specter of Superintendent Receivership for 25 of our schools already underway added another complicating layer to the decision-making process.  To say I was skeptical as we began the interview with Dr. Cash is probably an understatement.

I am a person who tries to keep an open mind, does the research, listens intensely and asks direct questions.  I approached interviews of all the candidates in this manner.  What I observed and concluded based on the questions (mine and others) asked of Dr. Cash in the interview and in subsequent conversations is that he:

     is focused on the job of educating children
     is a man not easily controlled by others; but he does seek consensus
     has experiences and successes (yes, and setbacks) in urban districts that will benefit the BPS
     has a quick wit matched by an ability to quickly size up people (political savvy)
     will hit the ground running to catch up to that learning curve
     is a relationship builder, who has the potential to unite factions of the Board

And yes, I did ask Dr. Cash those critical questions about his “reformer/deformer” mindset.  His response is that he doesn’t describe himself in those terms; that he will do what is in the best interests of children; and that he does not see charter schools and other reform strategies as the sole answers to our problems.  I asked about his ability to be his own man.  He assured me that while the interaction he’s had with Commissioner Elia will help create a better relationship between the District and Albany, he is his own man.  I even asked him about the rumor that he was a Jeb Bush man.  His response was to share a photo of himself with the President, “his man”.  These were the first, but certainly not the last of many candid conversations I will have with Dr. Cash.  Will I hold Dr. Cash accountable?   Yes, as I will myself.

Dr. Cash has a reputation for decisive, innovative and bold actions and he’s ruffled some feathers as a result.  But he also has a track record of attaining school improvement.  Our District is truly at the Crossroads…one road leading to state imposed receivership and the other to recovery and maintenance of our public school legacy.  Dr. Cash deserves our support, collaboration and cooperation.  The education of our children is at stake.

Monday, August 17, 2015

There's Accountability and then, There's Accountability!

Two weeks ago I wrote a column entitled “A Call for Accountability”.  The article focused on a letter from the Minority members of the Board to New York State Commissioner, MaryEllen Elia requesting the removal of Carl Paladino from the Buffalo Board of Education.  We cited actions and behaviors by Mr. Paladino that have systematically demonstrated blatant disregard for education law governing individual board member authority and a lack of respect and civility that contributes to dysfunction and low morale in the District.  There is no scarcity of documentation regarding these actions as they have been thoroughly reported in the media and in Mr. Paladino’s own publications.  We have been joined by others, who have also written letters to the Commissioner as well as a grassroots group that has called for Mr. Paladino’s removal.  Yet, officials, community leaders, fellow board members and others have remained silent and ignored a growing body of egregious acts.

We live in an era of accountability and a culture that brooks “no excuses”.  Does being accountable, however, only apply to some and not others?  Take our schools, for example, and by extension our students, who are judged by accountability measures that determine categories labeling them, “failing, priority, focus, or good standing.”  Recently these labels changed to include “persistently struggling and struggling”.  For Buffalo schools, the “good standing” ones are in the minority.  And just within the last few months nearly half of our schools have now been identified as “struggling” and “persistently struggling”.   These designations are based on several years of accountability data that purport to identify long-standing lack of achievement in these schools.  

Last week the State Education Department released the results of the ELA (English Language Arts) and Math standardized tests that are the holy grail of accountability for our schools.  These tests are given to students in grades 3 – 8.  With few exceptions all students regardless of special education needs or English Language fluency take the same exams.  Since the 2012-13 school year these tests have been aligned with the new Common CORE Learning Standards.  Educational experts have raised many questions about these high stakes tests; they are developmentally inappropriate, some of the answers are designed to “trick” test takers, the exams are not diagnostic so teachers can’t use individual results to customize lessons to address a student’s specific needs, some children are stressed and demoralized by the hours-long testing experience, teachers are being pushed to teach to the test leaving less time for art and music, for example and tying test scores to teacher evaluations is being contested as not valid.

Opposition to use of these tests has been growing in the State.  This year over 200,000 students, appropriately 20 percent of the student population in the State, refused to take these tests for the foregoing reasons.  As a result, we should question the validity of these tests even more. (I encourage readers to take a look at these tests.  Sample tests are available on the EngageNY website.)
Further, the test results over the last three years should raise questions about their use as the accountability measure determining the fate of our schools.  For comparison, the ELA tests resulted in the following statewide percentage of students who scored proficient (level 3 or 4) on the tests.
·         2012-2013 - 31.1                              2013-2014 – 30.6                                       2014-15 – 31.3

According to a press release from the State Commissioner, “overall, students statewide have made incremental progress in ELA and Math since 2013, the first year assessments aligned to the more rigorous learning standards…..”   Note, however, that the 2015 score represents less than a 1 percent gain.  Math scores ranged from 31.1% in 2013; 36.2% in 2014 and 38.1% in 2015, about a 2 percentage point increase.

Buffalo’s scores on these exams for the same periods are as follows for ELA:

·         2012-2013 -11.5                              2013-2014 – 11.9                                       2014-15 – 11.9

Our math percentages were:               2012-2013 – 9.6      2013-2014 – 13.1             2014-15 – 15.1

I am not making “excuses” for these scores as I know that we have a literacy problem in our schools that is serious and must be addressed urgently, but if the State Education Commissioner can describe the statewide scores as showing “incremental progress” then why can’t Buffalo be cited as showing “incremental progress” given the challenges that we face?  Why are we the poster district for schools in crisis when Rochester’s School District posted ELA results: 

·         2012-2013 – 5.4                             2013-2014 – 5.5                                       2014-15 – 4.7

Carol Burris, recently retired award-winning New York state high school principal, also writes that statewide “Only 4.4 percent of all English language learners and 5.7 percent of students with disabilities were proficient in English Language Arts.”

Given the numbers of students who opted out of these tests, the question being asked is whether this year’s results can even be considered valid.  Burris writes “Three years of data make it crystal clear that the New York State Education Department is giving inappropriate tests, which are, for most students, a prolonged and arduous exercise in multiple guess.”  The validity question is particularly relevant to Buffalo as these tests have been used to determine the fate of our 25 struggling and persistently struggling schools.  They will be managed by the Superintendent Receiver this year and next and must show “demonstrable progress” doing that period to avoid the appointment of an outside receiver by the State.

The Commissioner is now looking for ways to punish school districts that have large numbers of opt-outs.  Of course the justification for any sanctions will be to enforce accountability.   So, it all comes back to accountability!   Accountability and no excuses! To date, the Commissioner has not responded or even acknowledged our letter and I presume those of others who wrote on the same subject.  We are calling for accountability to be applied equitably.  We’re still waiting and we’re still demanding a response.  

Monday, August 3, 2015

A Call for Accountability

In a busy week that included a radio interview during which he tried to defend and excuse the racial slurs made by Joe Mascia about several African American political and civic leaders, Carl Paladino also had time to dash off a few inflammatory emails to Board of Education President Jim Sampson and myself.

On July 29th, Paladino angrily responded to an email request I sent to the Interim Superintendent.  Accusing me of ordering the Superintendent to take action on an item, he wrote:

“Your order was phrased as a question. Time for you to answer to the community for your maligned and arrogant attempts to destroy the charter system which serves over 9,000 Buffalo kids with a quality education that they would never get in the BPS.  If you were really about the kids you would advocate to disassemble the BPS and give every kid a voucher to choose where he or she would be best educated.  But no, you won’t because that would not sit well with your pledge of loyalty to Crystal Barton and Phil Rumore both of whom endorsed and supported your election. The charter schools have long waiting lists of applicants.  Those parents have the wisdom to not be led blindly by people like you, Cottman, Thiggs (sic) and the other thug activists who seek to protect the unions and maintain your empowerment.  There is no other logic to your position.”   Paladino ended this ridiculous attack with a sophomoric insult.  “Who ties your shoes for you?”

Although disrespectful and nonsensical the contents of this email pale in comparison to one(s) that were sent the following day to Mr. Sampson.  The call for a special board meeting to address the required Office of Civil Rights response and the transportation issue for the Charter School for Applied Technology, elicited the following tirade:

“Jim, I will not attend that meeting because I will not vote on either issue until we have appointed a Superintendent and Deputy Superintendent and replaced you with Larry Quinn as President of the Board so as to closely monitor the new Superintendent.”

The email continues with an assault on Mr. Sampson’s leadership competency and his failure to keep Mr. Paladino informed.  Paladino asks, “Where did you ever get the idea that you could tell me what to do or ignore me.”  The subject of a new Superintendent candidate, Dr. Kriner Cash, is raised several times throughout this email.   “I am willing to hear Cash out only because he comes highly recommended and only if he is agreeable to the appointment of Eberle as operating Deputy and an immediate restructuring of the executive staff as guided by the Board majority.  The idea of bringing in a black only to pacify the black minority on the Board is abhorrent to me……If Kriner Cash is acceptable he can be Superintendent only with Eberle appointed as Deputy Superintendent in complete charge of day to day operations of the district with the Weimer team for the non-receivership schools with Cash responsible for the receivership schools and the implementation of our reform agenda.  If Cash is not acceptable, then Eberle must be appointed as Superintendent with the Weimer team.”

The substance of these emails is troubling, particularly the one to Mr. Sampson.  Mr. Paladino is clear that (1) he intends to force the hiring of his hand-picked Superintendent candidate.  He is even willing to negotiate the hiring of Black man to be a figurehead if necessary (2) he wants the current executive team fired, immediately and replaced by a group he calls the “Weimer Team”.   There’s no concern about the destabilization resulting from the abrupt removal of staff, who are currently working on all the plans for school turnaround and initiating a new school year.  There is no consideration of the havoc these changes would create for our students.  The Paladino demands and ultimatums should be viewed further from several vantage points:

(1)    They reflect an arrogance and disregard for the legal limits of the authority of an individual Board member:  per Board By-Laws 1110 (Education Law Sections 2551-2554):

Members of the Board of Education have legal authority for the conduct of the District schools only when acting as a body, by majority vote, in a properly convened session.

Board members acting as individuals have no authority over school affairs or school       personnel.  The Board will not be bound in any way by any individual's statement or action unless the Board, through adopted policy or by majority vote, has delegated this authority to the individual member.

(2)    They constitute a pattern of intimidation and bullying of individuals, which have culminated in numerous law suits, instituted by Mr. Paladino or against him.  These legal cases predominantly impact Black women. The District has and continues to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees.

(3)    The pattern of intimidation, however, now extends to anyone who refuses to agree with Mr. Paladino or follow his directives.  Mr. Ogilvie, for example, experienced similar intimidation when Mr. Paladino confronted him and ordered him to submit his resignation.  

(4)    The exclusion of the minority board members from governance responsibility is deliberate and serves to disenfranchise them and their constituents

This email is also a stunning example of privilege.  Otherwise, who would include State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia and Dr. Kriner Cash as recipients of an email that proposes such improprieties except someone who believes he does not have to follow the same dictates as other people? Does “accountability” only apply to our students, our teachers, our administrators and some Board members?

It’s time for Mr. Paladino to be held accountable for his actions.  He has acted willfully outside of his authority as a Board member and clearly has been acting in this manner for some time.   The minority members have written a letter to the Commissioner calling for Mr. Paladino’s removal from the Board. Others are joining us and writing their own letters.  We need the Commissioner to hear from the community and to know that this behavior will not continue to be tolerated.

(New York State Commissioner of Education MaryEllen Elia; 89 Washington Avenue; Albany, NY 12234)
Read the full text of the Paladino email to James Sampson and the letter to Commissioner Elia, here