One out of three middle school and high school classes in the Buffalo Public Schools have 16 or fewer students enrolled – a situation that is costing the district $7 million each year without yielding any clear academic benefits, consultants found in reports released Monday.
Not only are many classes not fully enrolled, but rampant student absenteeism leaves many high school classrooms sparsely populated on any given day, according to the consultants, who were hired by Say Yes to Education.
“Very few of the high school classes we went into had more than nine students,” Scott Joftus, one of the consultants, said during a meeting with The Buffalo News Editorial Board.
His firm, Cross & Joftus, sent observation teams into 195 classrooms throughout the district last spring. The five-minute observations were used to analyze systemic issues, he said, not to evaluate individual teachers.
His systems review of the district dovetailed with a financial audit done by Schoolhouse Partners, which found a total of $13.7 million to $20 million in annual savings in the district’s budget – $7 million of which could be realized by combining class sections with low enrollment.
About 3,200 of the district’s 9,200 middle school and high school sections had 16 or fewer students, according to Dan Barcan, a principal of Schoolhouse Partners. In comparison, when his firm did a similar analysis in Syracuse – a district two-thirds the size of Buffalo – they found 400 sections with 16 or fewer students.
Superintendent Pamela C. Brown said she has not made any decisions regarding combining classes with low enrollment but added that the information from the reports would be taken into account as part of the district’s strategic planning process.
Maximum teaching loads are set by the teachers’ contracts. At the high school level, for instance, the maximum load for English teachers is 135 students; for other courses, it’s 150 students. Elementary teachers can have no more than 30 students in their class through third grade, and no more than 32 students in fourth- through sixth-grade classes.
The other potential savings Barcan identified included:
• Increasing the number of people who report to each district administrator: $2.7 million to $9 million. The district “has a glut of managers with less supervisory responsibility than expected,” Barcan wrote in his report.
In some cases, district administrators are doing the same work as lower-level employees, but making higher salaries, he said. Savings could be realized either through making job titles more accurately reflect the work that people do, or by cutting administrators.
• Renegotiating the contract with the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority for bus passes for high school students: $2.5 million. That contract was last negotiated in 1990, he said. The district pays too much for what is rather limited access for students – they can ride buses and trains only during times they would be going to and from school, and only on the routes between their home and school.
• Converting the paperwork in the human resources department to a web-based system: $700,000. Nearly all forms are currently filled out on paper and physically walked from one office to another, making for a highly inefficient system.
• Reducing the number of photocopies that employees make: $292,000. Barcan suggested assigning a personal ID number for each employee’s access to photocopies.
The total potential savings he identified works out to about 1.5 percent to 2 percent of the district’s annual budget, which exceeds $900 million.
He also addressed the issue of charter schools, which district officials frequently cite as a source of financial problems because a certain amount of funding follows each student who leaves to attend a charter school.
“The common narrative is that students are leaving for charter schools – and to some degree, that’s happening,” Barcan said. “But citywide enrollment, combining both district schools and charter schools, is also falling. And most charter seats are in elementary schools, while the highest rate of attrition in the district is middle school and high school.”
Joftus’ 120-page systems review echoed many of the same themes that distinguished educator Judy Elliott touched on in her recent report to the state education commissioner.
“We found that the culture has become one of being very passive and having very low expectations for students and adults in the system,” he said.
Even compared with districts with similar student demographics, including Syracuse, Rochester and Yonkers, Buffalo reported worse outcomes in many measures, including suspension rates for students with disabilities; English and math proficiency for elementary and middle school students; and high school graduation rates.
Throughout the district, Joftus found excessive student absenteeism; high rates of special-education classifications; a poorly managed professional development system; a lack of school-based hiring decisions; a lack of data-driven decision-making; and no clear plan for turning the district around.
The district hasn’t tried to replicate successful, sought-after programs like City Honors School, he said, nor figured out effective ways to make the lowest-performing schools more desirable to students and families.
He noted that his firm found huge inequities in the Advanced Placement offerings at the various high schools. Performing Arts, City Honors and Hutch Tech, for instance, each offer at least seven AP classes, while Bennett, Burgard, East and Lafayette offer one or two each.
The consultants conducted their reviews primarily in the spring, prior to Pamela C. Brown’s appointment as superintendent.
They also emphasized that the reports reviewed the district as a whole, as opposed to individual teachers or administrators.
“Working in a broken system, it’s difficult to be successful,” Joftus said.
His systems review, though, suggested much of the responsibility for the current situation lies with two players: former Superintendent James A. Williams and the Buffalo Teachers Federation.
“The previous administration’s leadership style established in the district a culture of obedience and siloed behaviors rather than trust, collaboration and ‘can do-it-ness,’” he wrote.
One unnamed district administrator is quoted as describing implementing an initiative not approved by former Deputy Superintendent Folasade Oladele as “sneaking behind enemy lines with water.” Others described certain administrative meetings as “laden with insults and shouting.”
Joftus’ report also points a finger at the BTF contract, which expired in 2004, saying that “it does not reflect best practices in talent management or education policy and undermines school and district improvement efforts.”
The contract limits the district’s ability to: evaluate teachers, transfer teachers, decide which teachers to lay off, terminate teachers, and require teachers to attend professional development to the extent necessary, among other things, according to the report.
Say Yes and its consultants presented summaries of their reports to the School Board at a special board meeting Monday evening in McKinley High School.
Say Yes has commissioned several other consultant studies, the results of which have not yet been released.