Even optimists who had hoped the new Buffalo School Board would move quickly to deal with issues that shackle the district had to have been startled at the speed with which the new majority is moving.
The board is already presenting plans for significant changes in the district’s organization, and on Monday Board President James Sampson announced that he will propose that the district hire former Erie 1 BOCES Superintendent Donald A. Ogilvie as interim superintendent. A vote is expected on Wednesday, and with the support of at least the board’s new majority, his approval seems certain.
The speed may be surprising, but it is welcome and absolutely commensurate with the problems that saddle the district. It has shown some recent improvements, but the district faces an array of challenges that begin with a 2013 graduation rate of only 56 percent.
The board’s plans are adventurous and already gaining notice from other struggling urban districts. They include:
• Encouraging new charter schools.
• Increasing the number of seats at the district’s top-performing schools, including City Honors and Olmsted.
• Appealing to suburban school district officials to allow city students to transfer into their schools.
• Asking the state to designate part of the Buffalo system as a “recovery district,” turning control of the lowest-performing schools over to the State Education Department.
• Implementing Opportunity Scholarships that students could use to attend private schools.
• Evaluating the district’s career programs, and assessing ways to create and expand those that align with future workforce needs.
Taken together, the goal is to create an additional 4,300 openings in high-performing schools by the start of the 2015-16 school year. It’s an ambitious agenda that needs to be carefully evaluated. What should be clear, though, and what argues in its favor, is that creative solutions are necessary to fix the problems that plague Buffalo schools and, generally speaking, most other large urban school districts. The old solutions applied in the old ways haven’t worked and aren’t likely to work going forward.
That won’t stop the critics, of course, many of whom are wed to the status quo. Phil Rumore, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation, proclaimed that “it seems like they’re giving up on Buffalo Public Schools,” a flippant response to a serious effort that the union might prefer to see buried.
That would hardly be surprising. The effort to create more seats at top schools relies on drawing more charter schools into the city. Charters are funded with public school dollars and their teachers aren’t always union members. That’s a threat.
Still, the district plainly needs additional capacity in good schools, and there are only so many ways of producing it. The problem was highlighted in dramatic style last year when some 2,000 parents exercised their federal right and requested that their children be allowed to attend a higher-performing school. The district could accommodate only several hundred because just 12 of the district’s 57 schools are deemed by the state to be in good standing. That’s a crisis and it demands an aggressive response.
Whether the board’s ideas are the best solution is subject to review, but it’s heartening that the district is moving quickly and also that it plans to bring Ogilvie in to oversee the work. Ogilvie is a highly respected administrator with a history of working productively with local school systems. He also has a strong relationship with state education officials, who were often critical – sometimes bluntly critical – of the district’s recent leadership.
There will be many hurdles along the way, possibly including the board members who lost their majority status in May’s elections. Those members have a duty to speak their minds, of course, but we hope all members will think first of the thousands of students who are entitled to something better than what they have been offered.