ALBANY – Inside the sprawling, ornate State Education Department building, top officials in May quietly drew up options to resolve what they increasingly perceived as Buffalo Public Schools’ inability to turn around its two lowest-performing schools.
With the Legislature still in session across the street in the Capitol, one idea was to seek specific, statutory authority for state education officials to intervene on behalf of students at East and Lafayette high schools, where less than one-third of students graduate.
Another option – the nuclear one – called for State Education Commissioner John King to order the district to take certain actions. If the district showed a “willful disobedience” of such an edict, King could move against the superintendent and board, although legal challenges would only delay improvements.
“We wanted to give the district one last chance,’’ said Ken Slentz, the deputy education commissioner charged with overseeing the state’s prekindergarten through 12th-grade school system.
So, the Albany officials settled on a solution in Buffalo’s backyard: Erie One BOCES. This fall it will begin offering students at the two schools the option to take classes at its three suburban facilities on everything from welding and auto repair to digital media, health sciences, culinary arts and pre-engineering.
Officials have publicly said the choice was made because BOCES offers a proven track record, high graduation rate, good leadership and the tools to help educate students. Sixty-six percent of its students in career and technical education programs go to college.
But there is another driving force: The State Education Department has legally connected tentacles into the BOCES system.
Nearly one-fourth of Erie One District Superintendent Don Ogilvie’s salary – $44,000 of his $167,000 pay – comes from King’s agency. And that gives King and his team a direct voice in educating students from at least two Buffalo schools that they did not have before.
“It certainly factored in, unequivocally,’’ Slentz said of the legal relationship between the state and BOCES.
The commissioner has the authority to direct district superintendents like Ogilvie to investigate matters on his behalf.
Indeed, Ogilvie and the other 36 boards of cooperative educational services around the state, created by state law in 1948, serve as King’s liaisons to a region’s public schools.
On July 8, Ogilvie’s phone rang. On the other end of the line were King and Slentz. They asked him if Erie One had the “capacity and willingness” to help offer career and technical education services to Buffalo students. Ogilvie said King and Slentz did not specifically say what they had in mind, but it was obvious what the call was about. The next day, Ogilvie told the two Erie One was ready. It could take some 200 students, if that many were interested, into its program. The program offers instruction for juniors and seniors for 2¼ hours per day in addition to the classroom time they spend in their high schools.
The decision has been controversial. Some in Buffalo believe it is the first move toward BOCES’ eventually running the two schools, or maybe more, or that the charter school interests are angling for more Buffalo schools.
“I think it is horribly misdirected,” said Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Buffalo Democrat, last month of King’s directive. “First of all, the assumption that young people at those two schools are interested in vocational training, and secondly, that BOCES has no real experience in urban education.’’
Some Buffalo officials are angry the state did not approve a turnaround plan developed by the district and Johns Hopkins University, a plan state officials described as too vague. State officials have not ruled out helping to fund a Buffalo program using the university’s experts.
Buffalo officials point out the district already offers career and technical education programs and does not need the BOCES services.
King countered that those claims “have been proven false” and that few students receive such “high-quality” program offerings in Buffalo.
There are outcries that Buffalo is being singled out when some other districts in the state, such as Rochester, have poorly performing high schools. Slentz said the agency is watching four or five other districts statewide – he would not name them – and did not rule out a similar approach for them as taken in Buffalo.
Buffalo, like the state’s four other large school districts, is not part of the BOCES program, so some fear the district will not be fully reimbursed for the $7,600 per student that Erie One is charging to open its doors to Buffalo students. Slentz said the district can afford it and offered to send a team of his agency’s financial experts to Buffalo to prove it.
In the community, a lingering question remains: Why BOCES?
“My view is that the need for action in those schools is self-explanatory, and the strength and track record of the BOCES is well-known throughout the city and region,” King told a Buffalo News editorial board last week.
In interviews last week, it was clear King and Slentz are growing less patient with Buffalo by the day, including perceptions that some district officials are pushing a “disparagement” campaign against BOCES’ abilities.
“No one has said, and this again is one of the very clear attempts to misrepresent the facts, no one has said that access to BOCES programs are the answer to all of the problems at East and Lafayette,” King said.
It is just one tool, he said.
King and Slentz bristle at complaints about sending urban children to suburban settings to spend part of their school day. Slentz termed the criticism “short-sighted” and said it comes from “adults behaving very badly.”
“We should be looking to, as a country and as a state, for opportunities to increase socioeconomic integration in our schools and youth services programs,” King said.
Slentz said the district failed since last winter on two attempts to submit adequate turnaround plans for the schools.
Now another school year approaches.
“The commissioner couldn’t stand by any longer and not have high-quality programs provided to them by the district,” Slentz said.
The state had few options.
“We’re fairly limited as to what we can do as a department. Folks think we can come in and take over any district, and that’s just not true,” Slentz said.
The state agency has pushed for several years, unsuccessfully, to convince state lawmakers to give King and the Regents broad powers over districts in academic or fiscal distress. Such powers would include an initial “joint intervention team” to help districts and even the authority to replace a school board and superintendent with its own appointees if the agency found a district had “interfered” with turnaround efforts.
The New York State School Boards Association, which opposes the takeover legislation, is carefully eyeing the Buffalo situation.
Timothy Kremer, the group’s executive director, said Ogilvie has a good reputation statewide, “but the people I’ve spoken to in Buffalo are not as enamored with Erie One as the commissioner.’’
Buffalo believes it already has a good career and technical option for students – a claim strongly disputed by King’s team.
Kremer said King’s BOCES plan is acceptable as long as it remains an option for students, but the effort could suffer if Erie One gets increased power over any Buffalo school matters.
While Erie One is legally independent, as other districts are, it has ties to King’s office that will give the commissioner a unique insider role in turnaround efforts at East and Lafayette. It also frees King from making even more politically tricky decisions, such as closing the schools.
“Erie One is an arm of the State Education Department,” Kremer said. “So the commissioner can insert himself and his department legitimately. Otherwise, they don’t have a lot of ways to get onto the playing field.”
A slowdown in state aid growth to schools in recent years has affected Erie One, which shut down one of its alternative education high school facilities for students at risk of not graduating. But its career and technical enrollment at its three high schools has remained largely steady at about 2,400 students last year. Students earn 7.5 credits towards a 22.5 credit Regents diploma when graduating from the part-time, two-year program.
Overall, Erie One employs 1,000 people and has a $150 million budget for everything from adult and high school education to providing technical support and teacher training for 19 area districts. Also, Erie One has been involved in past Buffalo improvement efforts, including code of conduct and student attendance improvement programs.
“It’s not, in my mind, ‘Why BOCES?’ It’s ‘Why not BOCES?’ ” Ogilvie said.