State Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. has never spoken in terms that show confidence or trust in Buffalo’s school leadership. Thursday was no different.
He once again threw down the gauntlet, challenging district leaders to do better.
“I don’t think anyone is happy with where student achievement is in Buffalo,” King said, referring to the roles of both the board and central office leadership. “They have a responsibility again to lead, and I hope that the public will watch carefully what they’re doing and hold them accountable for leading.”
But King isn’t the only one questioning district leadership – so are some School Board members, parents and other officials whose lack of confidence in Superintendent Pamela Brown is coming through in both words and actions.
Lead parent activist Samuel Radford III said the willingness of parent leaders to give Brown the benefit of the doubt has eroded in recent months, given what he described as a systematic unwillingness to involve parents early on in the development of improvement plans.
“I like the superintendent on a personal level,” he said. “I think she’s a nice enough lady. But we brought, as a District Parent Coordinating Council, five issues that needed to be addressed. She simply defended behavior that’s in violation of the law.”
He added, “The superintendent, herself, has stated that she’s not going to do anything different than she has been doing. That concerns us.”
Perhaps even more telling is the sudden silence of some School Board members, who had – until Wednesday – made critical remarks about Brown and their growing lack of confidence in her leadership.
Maverick board member Carl Paladino has repeatedly called for Brown to resign or be dismissed. But at Wednesday’s board meeting, he inexplicably agreed to withhold his motion calling for the superintendent to go.
“I have made an agreement to postpone my motion for two weeks,” he said Thursday. “My motion is that she be dismissed for cause ... I’ve emphasized the urgency to do something about this because the district is in chaos.”
He refused to say why he agreed to withhold his resolution. Other board members were similarly tight-lipped.
“I don’t feel comfortable talking about it at this time,” said board member Jason McCarthy. “We’re talking about serious issues. We have a very severe issue with leadership in this district. I just don’t think it’s the right time to discuss it and put it out there.”
It’s likely that if Paladino’s motion had come before the board for a vote this week, the tally of the divided board would have resulted in a serious weakening of Brown’s leadership status.
Just last month, she attempted to extend probation for a number of school principals and to deny tenure to one assistant principal. A majority of the board voted against her recommendations, which in the past, have been routinely approved.
Whatever the future of the district, the decision on Brown’s future currently rests with the School Board, which has the ultimate hiring and firing authority.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and King, however, have said they may be taking a more active role in addressing failing schools and school districts in the coming year.
Before King visited Amherst High School on Thursday morning to talk about teacher evaluations, he was asked about recent struggles in the city schools and increased talk that some officials might be on their way out.
“It’s not our place at the state level to make judgments about superintendent performance,” he said, “but ultimately, the measure of effectiveness of the Buffalo city school district board and central office leadership will be the learning outcomes for students.”
King also said he was disappointed with Buffalo’s progress on turnaround plans for East and Lafayette high schools and other failing schools in the district.
“But I try to remain optimistic, given the technical assistance we’ve provided and given their increased clarity about the need for urgency, that they’ll be able to move forward effectively,” he said. “At the end of the day, that board and that superintendent have a responsibility to lead, and that’s their challenge.”
He also said he’s advocating for a proposed plan that would allow the Board of Regents to remove control of failing districts from local hands “because we believe that if governance is a chronic problem in the underperformance of a district, the Board of Regents should have the authority to intervene.”
State Regent Robert M. Bennett elaborated: “The Board of Regents is looking at about seven districts around the state that are having serious difficulty with consistently low-performing schools. A number of options will be discussed.”
Those options could include a state-appointed academic control board running a troubled district for a set period of time, the conversion of public schools into a network of charter schools, and mayoral control of a school district.
Both King and Bennett said they expect the governor will take up the matter in 2014.
In a recent visit to The Buffalo News, Cuomo reiterated his belief that there should be a “death penalty” for failing schools and school districts, and that the state could require change through a variety of options. He said he intends to discuss his detailed plan for turning around troubled schools and districts during his State of the State address in January.
In response to King’s remarks Thursday, Brown issued a statement reiterating the areas in which the district has seen improvement over the past year. They include a projected 56 percent graduation rate for 2013, described as the highest graduation rate since 2009, and reductions in short-term suspensions and dropout rates.
A total of 44 of 53 eligible schools have earned an “effective” or “highly effective” rating for academic growth this past year, she said, and a higher percentage of 11th-graders have passed their English and math Regents exams.
“My main concern at this time is the continuation of the upward movement the district has seen in student performance, based on strategies that I initiated this past year,” she stated.
Common Council member Demone Smith, head of the Council’s Education Committee, said the superintendent deserves more time to make her mark.
“The community is stating the problem, and administration has acknowledged that,” Smith said. “That’s a step in the right direction. The superintendent has only been here a year, and she stepped into a lot of stuff. We need to give her a little more time to figure her way out of it. She seems to be willing to work and come up with solutions. They may not be what everyone wants them to be, but she is trying to address them.”