I hear you knockin'?But you can't come in. .

- Fats Domino, "I Hear You Knockin' ''

By Donn Esmonde

News Columnist

They should have welcomed these folks. Set out trays of cookies. Even sent a car to pick them up.

That, of course, is what would have happened if the people running Buffalo's schools cared as much as they claim to about kids. But they have other concerns. Which is why a band of reformers with a remedy for the city's troubled schools did not step past a welcome mat Wednesday evening. Instead, they ran into a brick wall.


These folks wanted to lay out for the School Board a kid-friendly plan to convert a couple of "failing" schools into reform-friendly charters. Instead of listening, a consensus of changephobic board members - claiming the group was somehow "disrespectful" - refused to let them speak.

Such is the state of education in Buffalo: Reformers are gagged. Ideas are left unheard. Remedies remain untried. No wonder parents with school-age kids have trouble sleeping. Or simply call Mayflower.

I don't care if the presenters did not properly kiss the board's ring. This is an urban school district, not the British monarchy. About 26,000 of the district's 31,000 students are in troubled schools. Parents want answers. Yet change is slow-tracked, and options are roadblocked.

It is no way to run a poverty-burdened district. Especially one where the list of failing schools keeps mushrooming.

By last count, 44 of the city's 57 schools are in trouble, with 28 on the critical list. It makes me long for the "good old days" of last year, when "only" 13 schools were on life support. What had been a concern is now a crisis. Someone needs to alert the board.

By muffing their ears and gagging the presenters, here is what board members missed: A plan to close two troubled schools and reopen them as public charters - with current teachers given first shot at jobs. The upside? The schools would be free of the union rules that stifle reform and handcuff teachers. That means everything from longer school days to smaller class sizes.

"It is the only turnaround model that allows for fundamental changes in a school's structure," Steve Polowitz told me.

Polowitz, attorney for the nonprofit Chameleon Community Schools Project, was part of the group gagged by the board. The rude reception came as no surprise.

A charter school restart means shredding union contracts at the two schools. It also underlines the larger question of how public education is best delivered, and by whom. Which is partly why board members - many of whom are beholden to the teachers union for support - don't want to hear about it.

To be clear, I have plenty of sympathy for Buffalo teachers. Leading classes filled with deprived kids is a near-impossible job -as evidenced by the epidemic of failing urban schools across the country.

Which is why, given the enormity of the challenge, teachers should be free to throw a bunch of stuff against the wall.

Sadly, that does not happen in district schools, where any reform has to be negotiated. That is partly why city parents have funneled their kids into charters over the last decade.

Indeed, restarting failing schools as charters merely institutionalizes what has been happening for years. Sooner or later, the board needs to open its ears. Maybe even its eyes.