How many of you remember the “Vision for Buffalo Public Education”? That was the document issued by the “new” Board majority in July 2014 shortly after their takeover. This document was supposed to guide the reform agenda of the Board majority and, in a 5 year period produce “a robust portfolio of high performing schools”. Elements of this agenda included the promise to create a range of options for parents to choose to educate their child – a) high performing charters b) expansion of criterion schools c) expansion of high demand CTE programs d) possible creation of a Recovery District for lowest performing schools e) transfer agreements to send Buffalo students to suburban schools f) creation of “opportunity scholarships” aka vouchers to use at private schools.
In addition, the “Vision” proposed to initiate changes in organizational and fiscal “structural realignment” that would improve management and more efficiently drive money to the classroom; teacher incentives; engage stakeholders, principally by creating a non-voting Board seat for a member of the DPCC and other activities focused on the relationship with the DPCC. A central element to insure the success of this plan was dependent on the hiring of an Interim Superintendent, who had the experience, insider knowledge, positive relationship with the State Education Department and, most importantly, a philosophy in line with that of the Board majority. Of course, the qualifications of the Interim Superintendent were tailored to those of the hand-picked appointee, Donald Ogilvie. Mr. Ogilvie was waiting in the wings and named to the position shortly after the publication of the “Vision Statement.” Awarded a two-year contract, Mr. Ogilvie was to lay the groundwork for the plan, develop strategies to initiate the “Vision’s” proposals and facilitate the Majority’s goals and objectives.
A year and a half later, what of the “Vision”? And what’s been accomplished?
Less than a year into the plan, Mr. Ogilvie the central architect, found himself under attack. Members of the New Majority accused him of moving too slowly and not aggressively implementing their objectives, such as increasing the charter school footprint in the District. A hidden power struggle between Mr. Ogilvie and Mr. Paladino, in particular, erupted into an open conflict when Paladino threatened to fire Ogilvie unless he resigned. Citing Ogilvie’s “betrayal” of the Majority’s agenda, Mr. Paladino launched his own advocacy campaign, to appoint the next Superintendent – a principal. By July 2015, the District was again without a Superintendent, leading to the appointment of HR Director Darren Brown as the third Interim in 12 months. The District lost precious months in the search for a new Superintendent as the majority refused to engage in an open and inclusive process. Even after the agreement to open a national search, Paladino refused to participate and continued to advocate for his own internal candidates. The hiring of current Superintendent Kriner Cash was accompanied by some threats and insults from Mr. Paladino, who has begrudgingly accepted Dr. Cash.
Oh, and what of the plan to increase charter schools in the District? An attempt to give selected charter schools existing Buffalo school buildings was proposed by Mr. Quinn in January of this year. It led to a protracted process during which three charters requested to takeover Bennett High School and MLK Multi-Cultural Institute. Never mind that these buildings had children in them who the charters would not be taking or that they wanted the buildings for free. Resistance from the community and minority board members coupled with the failure of the majority to undertake due diligence ended this attempt to undermine our District, for now. After much wasted time and talent, the Board was informed by the Corporation Counsel (thanks to Mrs. Cottman’s initiative) that the Buffalo Board is not authorized to dispose of school buildings. Closed buildings must be returned to the City. Consequently the charters would have to negotiate with the City, not the Board, for use of any school buildings.
And that goal to have transfer agreements with suburban schools? Just the mention of this idea in a Buffalo News article resulted in a flurry of hateful, hostile and racist comments opposing the suggestion.
Then there is the Office of Civil Rights mandate to increase equitable access to Buffalo’s Criterion schools. Ironically, one of the “Vision’s” goal states “Approximately 2,000 children apply but are denied admission to City Honors, Olmsted, da Vinci and Hutch Tech. The high demand for these schools makes a strong case for their expansion. The Board should plan to increase this option by 800 seats by 2015-2016.” Yet Mr. Paladino’s response to the serious matter of the OCR finding has been to publicly denigrate the consultant who recommended solutions to address documented disparities. He has also repeatedly questioned the authority and jurisdiction of the Office of Civil Rights. This behavior has not gone unnoticed by the OCR. Dr. Orfield, the consultant, provided a written response questioning the failure to comprehend the magnitude of the problem and the lack of civility. Mr. Paladino has created an environment that has made it difficult for the District to comply with the OCR requirement for a plan that addresses the finding of inequity for children of color in this District and contradicts his “Vision Statement’s” own goal.
There’s not enough space to fully critique the reform agenda proposed in the Majority’s “Vision Statement”. The “Vision Statement” proposed numerous objectives “to break the cycle of educational failure”. Instead outcomes produced by the actions of the Board majority have resulted in undermining the District’s stability, increasing organizational dysfunction, micromanagement by Board members, and poor staff morale to name a few. And now there is infighting between majority Board members that exacerbates Board instability. It would seem that, under their management, the Board majority’s vision; a dream for “high performing schools” has been turned into a nightmare plan for disassembling a school district. Perhaps that was the goal all along. Dr. Cash would be well advised to throw this “Vision Statement” in the trash where it belongs and concentrate on developing a plan that puts students at the center of the agenda.