Monday, September 21, 2015

Buffalo Schools at the Crossroads_Putting the Emphasis on the Wrong SylLAble

No one understands better than the minority members of the Board that the Buffalo Schools have serious, systemic problems.  As our new Superintendent has observed those problems extend throughout every unit of our District.  We also know that as the elected governing body, the Board has an obligation to develop and implement informed policy that addresses the issues impacting our schools.  The Board is also responsible to manage itself through good governance and establish a model for sound management of the District. But as a body we have often fallen short of this requisite.

The complexities of the educational landscape and the challenges posed by external regulatory agencies demand that Board members are knowledgeable and pro-active in response to current demands imposed by these agencies.  The District’s future is tied to how well the Board and administration respond to these mandates and the outcomes of our decisions.   Case in point:  The District has two significant actions pending from the New York State Education Department and the U.S. Education Office of Civil Rights. 

Last year, the Office of Civil Rights found the District in violation of providing equal access to the criterion schools, e.g. City Honors, for Black and Latino students.  This finding required the Board and staff to work with an outside consultant, Dr. Gary Orfield, who studied the reasons for this violation and recommended several changes.  The Board’s initial plan to address Dr. Orfield’s recommendations was rejected by the OCR and the District has been given until September 25th to revise the original submission. Our failure to provide an acceptable plan to OCR can result in the Office’s withholding millions of dollars. Obstructionism by one Board member prevented a thorough, in-depth review of the original submission.  It will be incumbent on all Board members to demand time for a full vetting of the revised plan.  We cannot afford a repeat of the previous process.

The designation of 25 Buffalo schools as “persistently struggling” or “struggling” by the New York State Education Department is the most recent decision that has a major consequence for the District.  The District has one year with the 5 schools identified as “persistently struggling” and 2 years with the remaining 20 to demonstrate progress. During this period, the Superintendent has been named the Receiver for these schools.  In this role, he has broad powers to institute changes, including staff, curricula and schedule.  However, if NYSED determines that the changes are not significant than the Commissioner will appoint an outside receiver to run these schools.  The Receivership Law gives the Superintendent the discretion to make decisions about these schools without the approval of the Board.  And while some individuals believe that the Superintendent will use this power to totally circumvent the Board, I don’t believe that it would be prudent or in the best interests of these schools for him to act as a solo entity.  However, this is a discussion that must take place so all parties are clear on the future direction regarding these 25 schools.  The Board has the responsibility to ensure there is clarity.

At a time when the State is requiring greater parental and community engagement, Board members Quinn, McCarthy, Pierce and Paladino propose to do the opposite.  On September 9th, they submitted a resolution to restructure the board meetings, in the name of efficiency and effectiveness.  The public speaker segment, for example, included “many of the same speakers; consumed almost 40% of our meeting time” and presumably prevented the Board from “conducting the actual business of the Board...”  Really?  In addition to limiting public access, this resolution is intended to control “content and frequency of board committees and board general business meetings….”  Again, to what end?  Limiting not only open Board meetings but Board education as well.

Rather than focus attention on the issues the Board should address, we are distracted by this call for efficiency and effectiveness.   There are many crucial issues the Board should have addressed some time ago; Why not question if “receivership” is in the best interests of our schools; whether the standardized tests, used to judge our “struggling” schools and students, and questioned by parents and educators across this state are fair and equitable; how will the Board and Superintendent collaborate on the 25 receivership schools?   And if that’s not enough, why not address the issue of an evaluation measurement for our new Superintendent?

I write today to urge Community stakeholders to question the Board’s priorities.  Members of the minority have been and will continue to question those priorities.  Don’t be distracted by tactics that place the blame on “speakers” for the Board not getting its business done.  Until the Board and Board members educate themselves on the pressing issues of receivership, high stakes testing, OCR complaints (because now we have a second one), we won’t get the business done that we are required to address.  It’s time to put the emphasis on the right syllable.

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