Debra Sykes said she doesn’t know why Superintendent Pamela Brown chose to seek her removal last week. But she does know that after 32 years with the Buffalo Public Schools, she’s finally ready to go.
“Mentally, I’m not just there anymore,” she said Tuesday.
The 16-year district math teacher rose through the ranks to become a well-respected math director, then an associate superintendent overseeing four troubled high schools. In the last four or five years, her job title has kept changing as she has picked up more work involving state mandates and school turnaround plans.
That came to an end Friday, when Brown expressed dissatisfaction with her work and suggested she resign.
“The whole thing was so bizarre to me,” Sykes said. “I’ve never in all my years experienced anything like this.”
Sykes was asked to leave Friday, a day after a team from the state Education Department informed district leaders that they found serious problems that need immediate attention at three schools they recently visited. Sykes said she doesn’t know if or how that meeting resulted in the loss of her job.
“If she connected that to me in any way, shape or form, I don’t know how,” she said of Brown.
State representatives said Tuesday that while the department raised serious concerns with the Buffalo school leaders about instruction at Lafayette and Bennett high schools and Martin Luther King School 39, they made “no connection” between those problems and administrator Sykes.
Both Distinguished Educator Judy Elliott and Regents Chancellor Emeritus Robert M. Bennett said the concerns raised by the state regarding the three schools did not involve the indictment of any particular administrator.
“The failure of these schools is not the responsibility of one person,” Elliott said. “This needs to be looked at as a systems issue. That’s the bigger issue here. That’s the story.”
Elliott, who attended the three-hour discussion between state and district officials by phone, said the district’s chiefs of school leadership have direct, day-to-day oversight of individual schools. Many issues raised by state representatives were discussed with them over the course of the three-hour meeting, she said.
“The deflection of responsibility at the district level was breathtaking,” Elliott said.
She also said that while the district’s Central Office reorganization was supposed to provide more direct support to schools, that doesn’t appear to be happening.
“We’re now in (November),” she said, “and we’re still waiting to find out what the supports to principals are going to be.”
Sykes was also present throughout Thursday’s meeting and said the issues raised by the state pointed to collective failures within the district.
She added that she has handled the planning and grant paperwork associated with school turnaround models. She also has worked with other administrators to provide assistance to schools, she said, but most direct school oversight has been handled by others.
Sykes acknowledged being a focus of some criticism over the summer when the district was unable to submit acceptable grant applications to the state for Lafayette and East high schools and Hamlin Park School 74. Those failed applications cost the district millions of dollars in federal grants.
Buffalo Elementary School of Technology and Highgate Heights School 80 were also required to rework their educational partnership contracts over the summer in order to meet their grant requirements.
But that doesn’t explain why Brown waited to remove her from her job until Friday, Sykes said. Under the reorganization, she said, her office was actually expanded to enable her to successfully complete more work.
Sykes confirmed that Brown said she was not happy with her job performance and gave her some examples, but Sykes declined to say what they were. “At the end of the day, I still worry about the kids in the schools and the teachers,” she said, “and all this drama around this does not help.”
Sykes said Brown made brief mention of another position that could be given to her, but Sykes said she’s ready to leave the district for good.
“I’ve reached a point,” she said, “where I’m tired of fighting these battles where I’m not producing any end result to the good.”