There are at least two significant conclusions to be drawn from reports by two consultants on the status of the Buffalo Public Schools.
First is that the district is more fortunate than many people initially understood that Say Yes to Education has partnered with it to improve education here. It is producing reams of data the district would otherwise lack and which should help direct its decision-making. Say Yes is hunting in the thickets for information that will help to improve education in Buffalo.
The second is well-enough known already, but bears repeating since it was highlighted in one of the two reports: The dysfunctional influence of district administrators and the teachers union has been pernicious. Like the superstorm that converged on the East Coast last week, they have rained ruin on the educations – and possibly the lives – of thousands of Buffalo students.
The good news is that a new administration has taken over. Superintendent James A. Williams is gone, and the district has a new leader in Pamela C. Brown. Unlike her autocratic and divisive predecessor, Brown is personable and her approach, she says, will be driven by data. Those factors offer a hope of improved outcomes for students.
The bad news is that the Buffalo Teachers Federation remains what it has been for decades: a boot on the throats of Buffalo’s students and on the city’s hopes for economic revival. And given the retrogressive approach of BTF President Philip Rumore, there is little chance that anything will change, absent significant revisions to the current contract.
What is possible for today, though, is for Brown and her team to make use of the truckloads of data the district never would have had but for its partnership with Say Yes to Education. The organization hired two consultants – Schoolhouse Partners and Cross & Joftus. They studied the district’s systemic problems and developed ways it can save money – as much as $20 million a year. And while those potential savings represent only a fraction of the district’s $900 million budget, it’s still $20 million, and every cent of it is worth saving.
Among the findings of the reports was that one of every three middle school and high school classes in the district contains 16 or fewer students. That costs the district $7 million a year while producing questionable academic benefits.
The researchers also found that the district is getting a raw deal from the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority on getting students to and from school, and that the human resources department is still operating with mid-20th century technology, relying on hand-delivered paperwork rather than a web-based system.
Meanwhile, the systems review concluded that the district’s culture “has become one of being very passive and having very low expectations for students and adults in the system.”
According to Scott Joftus, the district compares poorly to peer districts in many categories, including suspension rates for students with disabilities, English and math proficiency for elementary and middle school students and high school graduation rates.
“Working in a broken system, it’s difficult to be successful,” Joftus said. It’s the fundamental truth of education in Buffalo.
Part of the reason it’s broken is the district’s contract with the BTF, which Joftus said “does not reflect best practices in talent management of education policy and undermines school and district improvement efforts.”
It needs to change, and if teachers are fed up with not having had raises in nearly 10 years – not counting step increases – there may be room to strike a bargain that returns management authority to managers and serves everyone’s interests. Even the students’.