A meeting last week with Brown and School Board President Barbara Seals Nevergold was like a trip through the looking glass. Things are going well, they said. We have no idea why the commissioner thinks we are making excuses instead of taking appropriate action. So what if we can't get an application right the first or second or third time we submit it, even with the guidance of the state?
That inability to do something right is continuing, with the state's latest rejection of turnaround plans for Lafayette and East high schools. Add to that the board's belated effort to find spaces for the more than 2,000 students who are asking to be transferred from low-performing schools to better ones, as is their legal right. The district was warned months ago that there would be large numbers of students demanding transfers, yet the district dragged its feet and produced a plan that accommodates only a few hundred families, far short of complying with state requirements.
King's frustration with the school district has finally boiled over. He has ordered Buffalo school administrators to Albany this week to work with state officials on the turnaround plans.
That's a meeting the school district should have demanded months ago as the state rejected plan after plan as too vague. Instead the district kept making unacceptable tweaks to its proposals, all the while blaming State Ed for the district's failures.
King laid out five pages of changes that need to be dealt with at this week's meeting, now expected to take place on Friday.
The disconnect between what the state wants and what the school district thinks is good enough is one factor that is cheating Buffalo students of the education the state constitution guarantees them.
That gap is so vast it seems unlikely to be bridged by a one-day staff meeting. Indeed, Brown's statement that “Members of my staff will make themselves available” to redo the plans shows a remarkable lack of urgency.
In addition to state and local staff members, it is good that Brown will meet with Deputy Education Commissioner Ken Slentz but she, King and the president of the Board of Education should all sit down together.
Nevergold said the board had thought of inviting King to come to the district to discuss the issues. That was the right idea, but the wrong mind-set. The district desperately needs the support and guidance of the State Education Department. Officials should have gone to Albany months ago to deliver one message to King: “Tell us what to do.”
The school district's imperial approach to dealing with State Ed isn't working. This isn't a competition, and fear of wounded pride has no place in finding the equation that will fix the school district. Students' lives are being undercut.
It is true that the district faces extraordinarily difficult problems: poverty, illiteracy, non-English speaking students, troubled home lives, behavior problems, high rates of learning disabilities and more. Other of the Big Five school districts are struggling with those problems, as well. But those districts are doing a better job of planning and implementing strategies that meet state standards. And when Buffalo fails – as it has repeatedly in recent months – it makes excuses instead of resolving to do better and get it right the next time.
Speaking recently to The Buffalo News editorial board, King was clear that the district's leadership isn't meeting standards. He didn't use the word “incompetent,” but he could have. Buffalo students are paying the price for that.
A face-to-face meeting between the top education officials of the state and the Buffalo School District offers the opportunity to change that trajectory. Buffalo's school leaders should not come home from Albany without a signed agreement on turnaround plans.