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The Buffalo Public Schools’ top administrator in charge of school turnaround plans has been forced to resign a day after state officials told district leaders about serious problems in instruction, leadership and Central Office support at three underachieving schools.

A team from the state Education Department visited Bennett and Lafayette high schools and Martin Luther King School 39 a couple of weeks ago as part of a routine review of low-performing “priority schools” in the state. Their findings were so troubling, however, that the state review team returned to the district Thursday to recommend immediate changes.

The following day, school turnaround administrator Debra S. Sykes submitted her resignation “under duress.” As the district’s chief of strategic alignment and innovation, Sykes has been responsible for developing turnaround plans for low-performing schools and crafting multimillion-dollar applications for federal school-improvement funding.

In her resignation letter to Superintendent Pamela C. Brown, she stated, “In light of your comments to me today and to ensure my continued receipt of certain employment-related benefits, you leave me no choice but to submit this letter of intent to retire, which I hereby submit under duress.”

Sykes indicated that she was called to the superintendent’s office on 10 minutes’ notice Friday and told to resign and keep her health benefits or face discipline, which presumably could include being fired. Her letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Buffalo News, states that she retains the right to sue or make future legal claims against the district for the superintendent’s actions.

Deputy Education Commissioner Ken Slentz said this is the first time a state review team has rushed back to a school district with fix-it advice prior to issuing a written report.

“This is rare,” Slentz told The News late Monday. “Given the concerns that we saw, what the team had presented us with, it was very much worth it to us that we go back with the additional technical assistance.”

He said Bennett, Lafayette and Martin Luther King schools all shared “common thread issues” related to school leadership, the ability to provide sound instruction to students, and the district’s Central Office support for these schools.

The recommendations shared with the district were also shared with Johns Hopkins University, which is overseeing Lafayette High School, and Buffalo Promise Neighborhood, which is working with Bennett.

Slentz said Lafayette faces continuing problems in providing appropriate instruction to non-English-speaking students and singled out Bennett High School as being of particular concern to the state because it’s been a “priority” school since 2009.

If instruction at Bennett does not improve with some urgency, Slentz said, Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. may have to step in more forcefully, the way he did with Lafayette and East high schools over the summer. Bennett needs to break out of a culture of low expectations, he said.

Slentz added that the issues facing the three schools visited by the state review team point to both building-level and Central Office problems. Although Brown said she reorganized the Central Office to provide more immediate support to schools, Slentz said, “That hasn’t been our experience thus far.”

The state review team will present a written report to the district of its findings by late this month or early next, Slentz said.

Sykes, 58, an administrator for 32 years, faced heat over the summer for repeated failed attempts to submit acceptable grant applications for Lafayette and East high schools, as well as a number of other district schools. Her resignation is effective as of Nov. 29. It is not known who may succeed her.

Brown could not be reached to comment Monday, but in an email to School Board members, she stated, “I write to confirm that Ms. Debra Sykes submitted a letter to me today, indicating her intent to retire from her position as Chief of Strategic Alignment and Innovation at the end of this month. Although she was offered employment options within the district, this is the decision that she made.”

Sykes offered limited comment when reached Monday afternoon. She said she could have retired from the district sooner but chose to retire now and did not elaborate on the circumstances. In her letter, however, she recounted to Brown, “In the meeting you indicated that you were unhappy with my recent job performance. You then stated that I had the option to resign my position by submitting a letter of resignation by the end of the day today or face potential, immediate disciplinary action.”

Board members are divided over whether Sykes deserves to be forced out of the district.

James M. Sampson said board members are awaiting an explanation from Brown at the board’s regular meeting Wednesday. But he also surmised that Sykes’ resignation may have been forced upon her after the state meeting with district leaders.

“Based upon what I’ve heard and what I’ve read through emails,” he said, “I’m assuming that’s what it was for, and that was the progression of events.”

Board President Barbara Seals Nevergold, who attended the meeting with state officials, said she didn’t think it was appropriate to discuss the meeting because the findings have not yet been formalized. She also declined to comment on Sykes.

“Because it is a personnel issue, it is not something I feel is appropriate to discuss,” she said.

Board member Carl P. Paladino, however, said he believes that Sykes, who is white, is the victim of racial discrimination and is being persecuted because she previously filed a harassment complaint about former district consultant Mary E. Guinn and had recently inquired about the status of her complaint.

Paladino contended that Sykes is one of several administrators who has been targeted by the district leaders for demotions and firing because they aren’t black. “They’re playing a race game right now,” he said.

He also blamed Brown and Guinn for changing Sykes’ School Improvement Grant applications to try and keep control over certain schools, making the applications unacceptable by the state.

Board member Jason M. McCarthy said he heard Sykes’ department was understaffed and was also aware of her harassment claim against Guinn, but he didn’t rule out the possibility that she may have been targeted for poor performance reasons.

Over the summer, the district has made headlines for being unable to submit acceptable grant applications to the state for Lafayette and East high schools, Buffalo Elementary School of Technology, Highgate Heights School 80 and Hamlin Park School 74. Other schools received grant approval, but many schools that won approval did not do so on their first attempt.

With more than $4 million in school turnaround aid at stake for each school that successfully applied for grant funding, many board members have expressed frustration regarding the district’s application record. King, the state education commissioner, has also been highly critical of the district’s work and even required that top administrators travel to Albany in August to learn how to craft acceptable applications from Education Department administrators.

Slentz said the recommendations given to the district last week continues a pattern of exceptional intervention by the state in Buffalo. While other districts across the state require technical assistance from State Ed in targeted areas, he said, Buffalo leads the pack in its need for comprehensive help.

For more on this story, visit the School Zone blog at www.buffalonews.com/schoolzone

email: stan@buffnews.com