Local and state leaders Monday called on State Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. to come to Buffalo this week and explain his actions to students and parents at Lafayette and East high schools.
King, however, has no intention of hurrying on over.
“This is just another distraction from the work that has to be done,” said King’s spokesman, Dennis Tompkins. “He’s been to Buffalo many, many times in the past; he’ll be there in the future. Right now, Buffalo has to get to work.”
Teachers and local leaders complained loudly Monday about “political pingpong” between the state Education Department and the Buffalo School District.
The complaints come on the heels of last week’s community meetings at Lafayette and East. At both schools, some speakers heaped criticism on King for issuing unprecedented mandates requiring the two schools to partner with Erie 1 Board of Cooperative Educational Services, a maneuver they described as harmful instead of helpful.
After the first meeting at East last Monday, Deputy Education Commissioner Ken Slentz suggested to School Board President Barbara Nevergold that the district cancel its second community meeting. Nevergold said she surmised that state officials weren’t happy with the tongue-lashing they were receiving from community members at the first meeting. The meeting went on as scheduled.
“We’re trying to engage the stakeholders from the community,” she said. “In the past, when haven’t done that, we’ve gotten a lot of criticism.”
Tompkins said Slentz’s suggestion had nothing to do with public criticism of the state and more to do with a lack of information available to the public.
“Ken was offering some friendly advice to say, ‘Before you bring people in the room, you should be prepared to answer their questions,’ ” he said.
Tompkins also said that while King has not personally visited Buffalo since issuing his directive this month, he did send his deputy commissioner and assistant commissioner to Buffalo on July 18 and again Wednesday to provide guidance.
Also Monday, Assemblywoman Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes and Assemblyman Sean M. Ryan stood on the steps of East High School, adding their voices to the call for King to come to the city to respond to parent and student concerns. Common Council members also took the state to task at their Education Committee meeting Monday.
In both cases, elected officials wanted to know how BOCES – an organization with no school turnaround experience and some vocational courses similar to those already offered in Buffalo – would substantially improve graduation rates at Lafayette and East. They all expressed the belief that Johns Hopkins University should continue its role, as originally planned, to take over management of the two high schools.
Ryan described King’s latest directive as another in a long line of silver bullets that were once hailed as the answer to urban education before reality proved otherwise. “The new mandate coming down is just another ‘throw it at the wall and see what sticks,’ ” said Ryan, who went on to decry the state’s “artificial deadlines with punitive sanctions.”
Peoples-Stokes said the district bears some responsibility for the current situation, given its repeated failure to successfully submit applications for millions in school turnaround grant money.
“I think those could have been done exactly right the first time, or the second time, or even the third time,” she said. “It’s time to stop pointing fingers and get it done.”
Ryan alluded to the long-standing political tension between the Buffalo school district and the state.
“We always seem to be caught in this pingpong match where State Ed and the powers that be in Buffalo keep hitting the ball back and forth,” he said. “But the ball is the students, and the ball is the community, and that’s who continues to suffer in this.”
At the Council committee meeting, school district leaders distributed side-by-side comparative information showing that Buffalo’s career and technical education programs serve 6,322 students in 12 locations and cost less than $1,500 per student. The programs serve a high percentage of poor and minority students, unlike BOCES, and have a graduation rate of 85 percent.
Comparatively, they said, Erie 1 BOCES serves 2,400 students in three locations and would cost the district $7,600 per student. BOCES has a 92 percent graduation rate.
“It’s almost as if someone didn’t do their homework,” board member Sharon Belton-Cottman said of the state mandates.
Superintendent Pamela C. Brown expressed concerns about the loss of instruction time as students are bused to BOCES’ suburban locations, and how students who are learning English would be accommodated. Lafayette has a huge refugee population among its students.
In response, BOCES Superintendent Donald A. Ogilvie told The Buffalo News, “We’re not interested in supplanting what Buffalo does. We would like to ensure access to a broad range of programs that Buffalo cannot provide in any other way.”
North Council Member Joseph Golombek Jr. panned the state mandate, noting that the plan does nothing to build a sense of community in neighborhoods or to cut down on the time students must spend on the bus.
“I think this is atrocious, what’s going on,” he said.
A group of teachers from Lafayette and East also met at Buffalo Teachers Federation headquarters Monday to emphasize the many positive programs, partnerships and curriculum adjustments that increased the schools’ graduation rates this June.
They faulted the state for having fixed graduation standards that ignore the realities of student populations, such as refugee children. They said that their own district is stingy with resources and “disconnected” with its placement policies but that the state’s response isn’t helping anyone.
“None of what the state has decided has anything to do with what’s going on in the building,” said Jessica A. Gilmartin, who teaches English as a Second Language at Lafayette.
Tompkins said King’s directive to Buffalo schools is not meant to be punitive, but rather an emergency measure to help stop the slide in student graduation rates, which were 21 percent at Lafayette in 2012 and 27 percent at East.
“How long can you let this continue?” he said. “BOCES is a very capable and successful educational institution, and before you criticize, you should probably have a conversation with them.”
Ogilvie said he and district administrators met for the first time at length Monday and will continue to meet through Wednesday, when the School Board is expected to hear the district’s plan to meet King’s directive.
A final plan must be submitted to the state for approval by Aug. 12.