A mandate from the state education commissioner that students in two low-performing Buffalo public schools take classes outside the district was met with cheers from some stakeholders, while others questioned the proposed remedy and requested that the district be given more time to turn around the schools.
Reaction from Board of Education members, city officials and state legislators ranged from impatience with the district’s poor performance to confusion about what the mandate means and a desire for the district’s efforts during the last year to be recognized.
And some wondered if this means the state is preparing to completely take over the district.
State Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. wrote to Buffalo School Superintendent Pamela C. Brown on Wednesday saying that turnaround plans for Lafayette and East high schools are not sufficient and that millions in federal funds will not be granted. Instead, the district must choose between two options, both involving intervention by Erie 1 Board of Cooperative Educational Services, he wrote.
King’s directive that BOCES get involved in Buffalo is unprecedented.
“I think his concerns are absolutely valid,” said Ellicott Council Member Darius G. Pridgen. “I’m not sure his solution is adequate for the problem.”
Questions were raised Friday about what a BOCES takeover would mean for the existing workforce at those schools, how students would take non-vocational classes and how a large population of English-language learners at Lafayette would be accommodated.
Johns Hopkins University was preparing to take over as manager of Lafayette and East, but King said the district had not done enough to ensure that will happen.
The district must either allow any student at those schools to get career and vocational training from BOCES, or allow BOCES to administer the schools, similar to what Johns Hopkins was preparing to do.
“I support the commissioner’s decision, but I hope he doesn’t totally weigh out Johns Hopkins, because I think that’s the solution for those schools,” said Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes.
Mayor Byron W. Brown said he wanted to know more about King’s mandate.
“I’d like to understand why the relationship with Johns Hopkins, at this point, isn’t going to be allowed to move forward,” he said.
Buffalo School Board President Barbara Seals Nevergold was “stunned” by the letter and said that King did not take into account strides the district has made in the last year.
Nevergold said things are improving but said she couldn’t release graduation rate data from 2013.
“We’re asking the commissioner to include that data, give us more time, so we can incorporate enough feedback and education from the community, the parents and the children,” she said.
The district needs more time to implement King’s changes than the Aug. 12 deadline he set, said Nevergold, who noted that the district already has career and technical training programs.
Despite their low graduation rates – only roughly one in four students graduate from these schools – the schools may be of value to some, Nevergold said.
“Parents and students might say they’re very happy at that school, they succeed in that school, that school meets their needs,” she said.
The superintendent spoke about the letter Thursday, but on Friday Nevergold gave the district’s perspective during a late-afternoon news conference.
“I don’t know quite frankly where she is, but she is taking some time, and she is not in the district,” Nevergold said of the superintendent. “It doesn’t mean that we’re not addressing it and she’s not addressing it.”
While King had harsh words for the district with respect to East and Lafayette high schools, there are other schools in the district that have submitted successful turnaround plans.
North District board member Jason M. McCarthy said that communication between the district administration and the board has been lacking, as has communication between the district and the state.
“I’m completely frustrated at this point,” McCarthy said.
He too, was surprised by King’s letter and thought that Johns Hopkins was ready to take over the schools.
“It’s like one disaster after the next,” he said. “Every week it’s something else.”
State Sen. Mark Grisanti said Johns Hopkins must be given more time to be effective.
“You don’t want to have another system in place that’s not working,” he said.
Common Council members, meanwhile, were frustrated that they are expected to write a check to the district – $70 million every year – but don’t have a say in how the money is spent.
“This is serious,” said Majority Leader Demone A. Smith. “Let’s start to address these problems.”
Smith, chairman of the Council’s Education Committee, said the city’s high dropout rate leads to crime and greater problems in families, and said something must be done.
“This is almost genocide if we don’t get a hold of this,” he said. “These kids can’t continue to wait.”
North Council Member Joseph Golombek, a former public school teacher, doesn’t think a change in district leadership, or a change in the teaching staff, will change student performance if parents aren’t involved and students aren’t showing up at school.
Golombek pushed for the establishment of charter schools at Waterfront and East, but the state Education Department rejected those plans.
“I think our hands are very severely tied,” he said of the Council.
King’s letter was welcomed by board member Carl P. Paladino, who began his term this month.
“I was very happy he sent it,” Paladino said, adding that he hopes a state takeover of the district is next.
He expects the state to issue similar directives for Waterfront Elementary, another troubled school, and for the district’s plan to transfer students from low-performing schools, which he called “a total farce.”
Asked about a possible state takeover of the district, Nevergold said that King’s letter heightened her concerns about “ultimate mandates” that could come from Albany.
“I have no crystal ball,” she said.