The Buffalo School Board on Wednesday narrowly approved plans to close two low-performing schools and reopen them as new ones with programs focused on careers in the sciences.
At the same time, the board rejected a plan to merge the former Pinnacle Charter School with Harvey Austin School, saying the district had not given parents adequate notice of the proposal before bringing it to the board for a vote.
The board’s rejection of that plan – which was unveiled just this week – could mean that the state Education Department will come in and determine the fate of Harvey Austin, which has consistently failed to meet state standards.
Along with Harvey Austin, the district has been under state pressure to come up with a plan to turn around performance at Bennett High School and Martin Luther King Multicultural Institute. Last week, the district announced plans to close those two schools, gradually phasing them out and replacing them with the new programs.
The vote came at the end of a lengthy School Board meeting that was largely dominated by concerns about how the district went about developing plans for the schools, which have consistently failed to meet state standards.
Although the majority of the board signed off on the plans for Bennett and MLK, some members expressed concerns about how the plans were developed, and why the district did not bring the proposals before them sooner. The plans were due to the state March 1, and the state already gave the district an extension.
The criticism, the culmination of weeks of controversy in the Buffalo schools, was lodged during a lengthy and contentious board meeting that at times had parents and teachers in the audience calling for order. At 11 p.m. – six hours into the meeting – the board had not yet begun discussing a resolution to suspend two administrators who were hired without the proper state certification.
Yamilette Williams, chief of curriculum, assessment and instruction, has only a conditional certificate to serve as a school principal in New York State, not as a district-wide administrator, according to the state Education Department. Faith Morrison Alexander, one of the district’s chiefs of school leadership who provide direct oversight to schools, has the same conditional certificate.
Rather, the discussion of the turnaround plans dominated most of the meeting.
District leaders have had months to come up with the plans, and the state extended their deadline to last week. Some board members wanted more time for all of the plans, but district leaders said they believed that if they did not approve the plans this week, the state might intervene.
“I think we’re in a situation where the time has run out,” said Judy Elliott, the distinguished educator whom the state placed with the district.
Board members questioned the quick turnaround of the plans, whether parents and other key stakeholders were consulted and whether district leaders came up with the best academic plans.
Prior to the vote, Superintendent Pamela C. Brown cautioned board members that the rejection could mean the state will come in and make the decision for them – and that could mean closing the schools.
Both Bennett and MLK have been in dire straits for years. They were among the first two Buffalo schools placed on state watch lists for consistently failing to meet state standards. That prompted the state in 2010 to award the district extra money to turn around those schools, but those efforts showed little success, and now that money has run out.
These issues come as board members also grapple with a $50 million deficit for the coming year. That deficit equates to anywhere from 120 and 400 full-time staff positions, although it is not yet clear whether any jobs will be cut.