That is the message from the state Education Department to Superintendent Pamela Brown regarding the district’s failure to properly include parents in its application for millions in federal grant money and all its school improvement plans.
The state is placing a temporary hold on $36 million in federal aid until the district has “meaningful” discussions with its parent group, as required by law, said Roberto Reyes, director of Title I School and Community Services.
While this decision is unlikely to have a serious, immediate impact on the district’s budget, it represents another serious rebuke from the state and reinforces the District Parent Coordinating Council’s long-standing contention that parents are not treated as true partners in the improvement of education for Buffalo children.
“They’re struggling with the fact that they have to actually respect parents as something other than a group that does baked good sales,” said parent council President Samuel Radford III, referring to Brown and her predecessor, James Williams. “I’m serious. They’re struggling with this.”
Back in August and September, Radford warned Brown and the School Board that the parent council would file a complaint with the state if the district submitted these plans and applications without further consultation with parent leaders.
The district and the board went ahead with the application and plan submissions regardless. These documents govern the use of $36 million in federal aid and detail how the district and individual schools plan to improve academic performance.
On Thursday, Reyes stated that while district leaders are not required to gain the approval of the parent group in the submission of these documents, they must prove that they solicited feedback from the parent council in developing the district’s applications and plans.
Reyes stated in his letter to the superintendent Thursday that the district did not meet this requirement despite the district’s submission of hundreds of pages of documents in October attempting to prove otherwise.
As a result, the state is “placing a hold” on the district’s previously approved consolidated application, which would have released millions in federal Title I antipoverty money and other federal grant funding.
Money related to the districtwide and individual school improvement and turnaround plans also is being temporarily withheld.
The release of that money is contingent on the district scheduling a series of meetings with the parent council in January to discuss the improvement plans and federal grant application. Progress reports, including meeting minutes and other documentation, must be submitted to the state as proof the state’s directive is being met.
The district then would submit a request by Feb. 1 to have the Education Department reinstate the district’s budgets.
Assuming this occurs, the district appears unlikely to face any serious financial consequences. Although the district relies on state and federal grant reimbursements to support much of its work, a one-month delay would not be considered a major setback since the district initially covers its own costs up front.
From a public relations standpoint, however, the state’s withholding of federal aid is problematic for a superintendent who has had top state education officials repeatedly showing up on her doorstep with concerns that must be immediately addressed.
Brown released the following statement Saturday:
“We were pleased to learn that Commissioner [John B.]King sustained his approval of our Public School Choice Corrective Action Plan.
“During the last several months, the district has held public forums and meetings with all parents, including the District Parent Coordinating Council, to discuss the Consolidated Application and District Comprehensive Improvement Plans.
“We intend to continue these collaborative efforts in developing district and school plans during the next month in order to maintain our focus on the needs of the children.”
Assistant Education Commissioner Ira Schwartz and other state officials met with the superintendent for hours on Friday to discuss a number of concerns, including the state’s directive to meet with the parent group or face a further tie-up of funds.
“Ira Schwartz made it crystal clear that the money will not be released until the district comes into compliance,” said Radford, who also attended the meeting. “There’s no ambiguity there.”