When Superintendent Pamela C. Brown unveiled the Buffalo School District’s strategic plan Wednesday, she described it as an exceptional document – the result of eight months of effort, community collaboration and extensive stakeholder input.
Its pages contain a broad, five-year blueprint for turning around a struggling and beleaguered school system. In addition, Brown introduced two other documents – detailed district and individual school improvement plans – that Buffalo must submit to the state as its road map to academic progress.
The public had no access to any of these documents, in apparent violation of the state’s Open Meetings Law, even though most School Board members received all the plans five days earlier.
In fact, throughout much of the lengthy Wednesday night meeting, spectators had no details on what the board was looking at or discussing. By the time the plans were approved, close to 11:30 p.m., most people had left what had originally been a packed room.
The public’s lack of access to plans designed to save Buffalo’s schools drew criticism from all sides Thursday.
Legal experts were among those disapproving.
“That doesn’t seem to comport with the requirements of the law,” said Camille Jobin-Davis, assistant director of the New York State Committee on Open Government.
Some board members were irritated.
“That was one of the most irresponsible agendas I’ve ever seen anyone put together,” said board member James M. Sampson.
Collaborators on the strategic plan were puzzled.
“If you go to early documents in the process, it was very clear it was to go to the community forums before final board approval,” said Gene Chasin, chief operating officer of Say Yes to Education.
And parent activists were upset.
“Once again, we were told that there would be more opportunities for input into the final plan that was approved,” said Jessica Bauer Walker, a vice president with the District Parent Coordinating Council and member of the Strategic Plan Steering Committee. “I’m not even sure I looked at the final version.”
She pointed out, as did Brown, that four community forums are scheduled in September and October on the strategic plan.
Originally, the forums were meant to share and further refine the draft strategic plan. Now, however, they will simply be informational meetings to present the adopted plan.
The board approved the strategic plan by a 7-1 vote, with Carl P. Paladino voting no. The board also approved the district comprehensive improvement plan and the school comprehensive education plan, 6-2, with Paladino and Sampson voting no.
In February of last year, the state passed an amendment to its Open Meetings Law, Jobin-Davis said. The amendment requires that “any proposed resolution, law, rule, regulation, policy or amendment” subject to discussion by a public body be posted to the agency’s website “as soon as practicable.”
That law is routinely violated by the district. While the district does provide the media password-protected access to an agenda packet prior to regular meetings of the board, those packets often omit important reports that board members subsequently review in detail during open meetings.
The willingness of the School Board to approve the district’s strategic plan on short notice, with no final public review, runs counter to the eight-month process that resulted in the plan’s creation.
“The strategic plan brought together over 100 different stakeholders,” Chasin said.
Ownership of the plan belongs to the community, he said.
It was developed in response to a highly critical report by the Cross & Jostus educational consulting firm that “laid out some ugly truths” about the school district, said Anne Ryan, executive director of Read to Succeed Buffalo.
The strategic plan adopted Wednesday is the first of its kind for the Buffalo district.
“It should be the driving force, the compass, if you will, of the work the school district will be doing in the coming years,” Chasin said.
The plan addresses key areas of student achievement, family and community engagement, human resources management, operations and financial planning.
It also lays out specific goals for where the district wants to be in the coming years, such as realizing a graduation rate of 80 percent by June 2018, and presenting financial data in a transparent and understandable manner by this November.
The subsequent 2013-14 district comprehensive improvement plan is linked to the strategic plan, as is the school comprehensive education plan.
These two short-term plans are required by the state Education Department because Buffalo is considered a struggling school district under federal guidelines. These plans must be submitted to the state by the end of the month, before the board next meets.
Paladino said he never received copies of the three plans.
Instead, he said, he received a packet that included a one-page sheet indicating that he could get copies of the plans at the board’s private small group meeting Monday or at the regular meeting Wednesday.
“And there it was, sitting on the table,” Paladino said.
District administrators denied that the plans were omitted from his board packet.
Sampson voted in favor on the strategic plan, which he described as more general, and against the other two plans, which he described as lacking specifics on measuring outcome.
He and others described Wednesday’s board meeting as poorly structured, resulting in a session that ran for six hours until adjournment at nearly 11:30 p.m. because they were just too tired to continue.
“It was very, very confusing at the end,” Sampson said. “Everybody was exhausted. That’s another reason why you don’t do these things.”
At the board’s next regular meeting Sept. 11, Sampson said, he will discuss his motion to make the board more transparent. He also intends to introduce an amendment that will require that all non-confidential board documents be released to the public in advance of board meetings.