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Why aren't we treating this as a crisis?

State Education Commissioner David Steiner and Buffalo Schools Superintendent James Williams are bickering about whether the graduation rate among city students indicates stagnation or progress.

Depending on the benchmarks, the numbers released by the state Education Department show modest to no real improvement.

Using the Class of 2005 as a benchmark, Steiner notes that the city's four-year graduation rate inched up only one percentage point, to 53 percent in 2008. And that factors out more than 800 students held back in eighth grade because they were deemed not academically ready for high school.

Williams, using the Class of 2006 as a benchmark, says the graduation rate went from 45 to 57 percent and hails the Class of 2009 rate, including kids who graduated after attending summer school, as a marked improvement.

Yeah, I know, dubious.

High school students

The quibbling over the numbers mask an indisputable reality.

More than four out of 10 high school students are failing to graduate from high school on time. We're talking some 1,050 kids for last year's would-be graduating class alone.graduating

Anywhere from a quarter to a third of high school students have dropped out in recent years. We're talking anywhere from 500 to 1,000 kids a year.

The numbers are depressing, regardless of the racial group, and especially bad among Hispanics. The graduated-on-time percentage for them was 45 percent, the dropout rate 32 percent, for the 2009 graduating class. For blacks, it's 55/23. For whites, 64/21. 

Stagnation? Progress?

I have a better word.


Yeah, crisis.

Why isn't this, and why hasn't this, been treated as a crisis?

Education is as close as it comes to a silver bullet to social ills. Crime, poverty, you name it. If you want to know why we rank as the nation's third-poorest city, look no further than the aforementioned numbers.

Yeah, there's more to it than that -- industrial decline and all that -- but if we want to get back on our feet, we've got to make sure more of our kids are getting an education. Our city is populated with thousands of high school dropouts, and they function as an economic albatross.

Pin our abject failure on poverty if you want, but there is a growing body of research that shows high expectations and a smart educational system can make a big difference. Of course, that requires commitment and fresh thinking, something in short supply in this town when it comes to our schools -- among other issues.

City funding for its schools has remained flat in real dollars while costs have spiked, and we've left it up to the state to make up the difference. 

Neither Mayor Byron Brown nor anyone on the Common Council has rolled up their sleeves and tackled education as a serious issue, despite its importance to the city's future.

So, blame the politicians, but also blame the voters. 

Turnout for the last school board election was a pathetic 5 percent. Compare that to the nearly 60 percent of Iraqi voters who showed up at their polling stations a few days days ago, despite bombs going off left and right.

The BTF? As a union, its primary obligation is to look out for the economic well-being of its members, but it would be nice to see them loosen their grip on their cosmetic surgery rider.

Lazy or indifferent parents? Yes. Absolutely.

Not enough money to do the job? Please. We're spending some $20,000 per student per year. That's not chump change.

Long story short, we as a community need to treat low graduation rates as a crisis. A freakin' crisis. And we need to do it now.


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Cut state budget with a chain saw, not a penknife

Paterson, budget announcement

On one hand, the proposed budget Gov. David A. Paterson released Tuesday goes further than many in the  status quo minded State Legislature would like. Through that prism, his spending plan is kind of bold.

But, given the state's grim fiscal reality -- it's staring at the prospect of a $7.4 billion deficit -- Paterson's proposed budget doesn't go nearly far enough. The state's legacy of over-the-top spending calls for structural changes, and that's largely absent in what Paterson has submitted.

Here's what I find striking:

-- No employee layoffs. How can a significant reduction in payroll costs not be part of the equation, given the size of the budget deficit?

-- A cut in school aid of just 5 percent. Given that school aid has skyrocketed in recent years -- up an average of 7.2 percent annually over the past decade --  and spending on education in New York is among the highest in the nation, the state has been generous to a fault  -- and will continue to be, even if the Legislature were to go along with Paterson's proposed cut.

-- For that matter, the governor is calling for only a small cut in aid to local government, no more than 5 percent. Let's see, Buffalo is sitting on top of a $48.2 million surplus and a $33.6 million rainy day fund, which has prompted the mayor to float the idea of a property tax cut to "share the wealth," which, of course, comes from Albany. It seems like City Hall, for one, could weather a deeper cut.

-- The budget calls for nearly $1 billion in higher taxes and fees that come on top of $8.34 billion in increases last year. Enough already.

-- The Legislature, with its lulus and other perks for lawmakers, and its bloated staff, sets its own budget and it needs to tighten its belt -- by a lot, not a little. Let's see what they do.

A suggestion: Lead by example.

A prediction: They won't.

For years, the governor and Legislature have increased spending, raised taxes and avoided making hard budget decisions. New York is now in financial crisis and while Paterson's spending plan takes some steps in the right direction, too many of them are baby steps, given the task at hand.

As the adage says, it's time to "go big or go home."

Or, as my boys sing, "Let's see action."

Hit it, Pete.


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Short-changing students to benefit teachers

School districts don't tolerate a first grade teacher instructing high school biology.

But if that same first grade teacher wanted to coach, say, the volleyball or track team, it would be no problem in many districts, provided they had their paper credentials in order.

I was reminded of that sad reality by a story about the Depew School Board refusing to act on the recommended appointment of a -- gasp! -- non-teacher as assistant cross country coach. No one on the board would make a motion, much less a second, on the proposed appointment.

Board Member Diana Benczkowski told reporters that students want their coaches to be teachers.

Ah, actually, no.

You see, Diana, what students want is for their coaches to be good coaches. And a teaching certificate and a few courses on CPR, sports pysch and the like does not equate to coaching competency.

The problem is that too many school boards treat coaching as a jobs programs for teachers, and many districts have codified it in their labor contracts.

I've seen it with my own eyes. My three children have played high school sports while attending Buffalo public schools and while their school generally has had good luck attracting quality coaches who are teachers, too often they have played against teams where it was obvious the opposing coach (1) had never played the sport and (2) had not held many practices to improve the skills of their players.

In other words, those who can't, coach.

For the coaches, it's a way to pick up anywhere from $2,500 to $5,000 a season. Yeah, many work hard and are good at what they do. But then there's the coach I watched last season who spent a good part of the game sitting on the sidelines talking on her cell phone.

City schools, to their credit, are starting to introduce modified sports, giving 7th and 8th graders a chance to play. You'd think it would be especially important to get kids off on the right foot with good coaching, but under contract, coaching jobs have to go to teachers.

This is not to pick on Buffalo schools, as many a suburban district pulls the same stunt, giving teachers a stranglehold on coaching jobs.

It's a bit more troubling in the city, however, given that sports can serve as a lifeline for kids who sometimes have few other constructive outlets. What sort of incentive is there for a kid to play on a team when the coach doesn't know what  he/she is doing and sometimes is simply going through the motions to collect a paycheck?

This doesn't just represent a lost opportunity to play and learn the life lessons that come with play, but closes the door of opportunity for kids to parlay their sporting skills into a college education.

I'm not saying would-be Division I stars are losing out. But being an accomplished high school athlete can open doors, and sometimes free up scholarship money at Division III schools. Yeah, I know, officially, sports doesn't open doors and result in scholarship money at the D-III level. But the reality is otherwise.

The trouble is, at some schools, in some sports -- and I suspect women's sports get shortchanged more than men's -- students don't get a chance to fully develop as athletes and lose out on the potential benefits. That's what happens when school districts, rather than looking out for the best interest of kids, instead make employing adults their priority.

 And in the case of coaches, in too many places, outsiders need not apply.

You could be Marv Levy, but if the gym teacher wants to coach the football team, well, the kids are out of luck.

Winner: Apathy. Loser: Our kids.

When I voted in the School Board election at 9 a.m. yesterday I was voter No. 20. Out of more than 3,000 in the combined election districts at my polling place. It was an intimate gathering - just me and four election workers.

Out of curiosity, I stopped by my polling place on the way home from work to check on the turnout. All of 175.

Well, the results are in, and citywide, only 5 percent of registered voters turned out.


What does this say about our city's interest in our children, at a time when what we get for spending three-quarters-of-a-billion-dollars-a-year is a high school dropout rate of 55 percent, school board members treating themselves to junkets and food spreads before meetings, and the fiasco last year at McKinley High School?

It says the same thing that the city's spending on its schools does. Like city government itself, our schools have become a ward of the state.

People complained about Jimmy Griffin's stinginess towards the schools years ago. Well, folks, in retrospect, those were the good old days. Relatively speaking, of course.

What it all says is we don't really care about our kids.

Yeah, I know, May elections suppress the vote, But there's no getting around the fact only one out of every 20 registered voters did their duty yesterday.

I'll bet a lot more watched Oprah and Sports Center.

I think the turnout also speaks to the state of civic life in the city.

Citizen groups, be they PTAs, block clubs or community based organizations, are withering. Muscular organizations like BUILD are a distant memory.

Yeah, there are a few on the ball, but they are the exception to the rule.

One reason - a big reason - why the politicians get away with murder in this town is that there's not much to keep them in check or hold them accountable.

We're the third-poorest city our size in the nation, and if someone was to measure the vibrancy of our civic life, I'll bet we would fare just as poorly.

School Board spending on lawyers

The move by Buffalo school officials in 2005 to unilaterally move teachers into a single health insurance plan was a loser from the beginning. Anyone with any knowledge of labor law knows you can't make unilateral changes to a contract.

The fact the Board of Education did this in the midst of contract negotiations with the Buffalo Teachers Federation all but ensured there would be no settlement. You can't take away a union's biggest bargaining chip and expect to strike a deal. That's not how the real world works.

The board's action has been rejected as improper by an arbitrator and three courts.

Three strikes and you're out. Four and you're just out there.

Meanwhile, contract talks between the district and BTF have dragged into their fourth year.

I got to wondering how much all this legal wrangling is costing taxpayers. So I filed an information request with the school district. I've received an answer.

Legal costs through the end of June total $251,907.72.

As in, a quarter million dollars. Just for outside legal counsel, Damon Morey, in this case. Their lead attorneys were charging the district -- in other words, taxpayers -- $150 an hour three years ago; I'm sure the rate hasn't gotten any cheaper.

I'm also pretty sure a lot of staff time has been invested, as well, and we know school bureaucrats don't come cheap.

Gee, for that change, the district could have pursued disciplinary action against McKinley High School Principal Crystal Barton. Williams nixed the idea, saying it would cost too much.

District officials will gladly tell you how much they've saved in health insurance premiums, some $40 million since 2005. But keep in mind, the savings are the byproduct of illegal activity on the district's part.

Not a good lesson for the kids, and we all know, it's all about the kids.

Meanwhile, the district's legal bills continue to mount, as the BTF continues to press the district to live up to court orders that the Board of Education so far has failed to honor.

Board of Adult Employment

A lot of you are probably scratching your heads over the Board of Education's decision to not  bring disciplinary charges against anyone in the Crystal Barton-McKinley High School matter. I'll admit to being a bit surprised - but not really.

I covered Buffalo public schools in the mid- to late '90s, and over time I came to realize that much of what happens in the school district is done to benefit adults, not kids.

School buildings closed after hours because janitors essentially controlled the buildings. Principals using after school programs as a means of billing the district for overtime. Inner-city kids in need of the best teachers often getting much less because of work assignment rules.

A lot of people, particularly classroom teachers, work very hard on behalf of students. But the district's bureaucratic culture is adult-centric.

By the end of my tenure covering the schools, I sometimes found myself muttering about a Board of Education that too often functioned as a Board of Adult Employment.


Your tax dollars at play

School_busMy wife is going to say I'm being a grump, but can someone explain to me the educational value of having students attend yesterday's Bisons game?

The Bisons hosted their annual School Kids Day and packed in the biggest crowd of the season, 15,640, including some 10,500 students and 500 teachers and other adult chaperons. Tickets went for $6.75, $11 if you took the food package.

After talking to the Bisons, my math shows ticket revenue added up to about $87,425. In some cases, schools paid for tickets, in other instances, the kids did.

Regardless, that's not a bad take for the Bisons, and it doesn't include revenue from additional concession sales. There are other costs, as well. Teacher pay (I can't imagine riding herd on 25 kids is exactly a walk in the park) and the 250 buses used to transport the kids (photo is file art from the Bisons).

Add it all up and the day at the ballpark cost more than $100,000. And the educational value was what?

About the same, you say, as one of my other favorite school field trips, to Darien Lake?

Say what?

Some things worth reporting are worth repeating.

My colleage Peter Simon, reporting on a Buffalo Board of Education meeting Wednesday on the report prepared for the district on McKinley High School Principal Cyrstal Barton's role in the heavy-handed suspension of student Jayvonna Kincannon, said that Superintendent James Williams told reporters afterwards:

"To be honest with you, I have not read the report."

I don't know whether to laugh or cry.

Comparing school taxes and spending increases

The joke is that Buffalo has a bar on every corner. To that I would add, Erie County has a school district at every intersection.

There are 30 school districts in the county. One as small as 710 students. Many in the 1,400 to 2,500 range. Or about the size of my high school when I graduated all those many years ago from Kenmore East.

My colleague Tom Precious, in an April 20 story on the recommendations of the New York State Commission on Local Government Efficiency and Competitiveness, wrote:

"Consolidation is recommended not just for cities, towns and villages but also for the state's 698 school districts, which levy the biggest local property tax hit. Consolidating two, 900-pupil districts can save 9 percent, and merging smaller districts can save taxpayers as much as 20 percent, the commission noted."

Meanwhile, back in Albany, the governor and State Legislature this session increased education aid to districts by a record 8.9 percent - in the face of a huge state budget deficit. That aid has enabled local school districts to increase spending in proposed budgets for the coming year well beyond the 2.6% inflation rate the state used in calculating its budget. Only Lakeshore increased spending below the inflation rate.

An informative two-page spread in Monday's edition of The News provided budget details for voters, who go to the polls May 20 to say "yea" or "nea" on the spending plans. I took a look at two categoties of information -- how much proposed spending is up in the budgets, and the property tax bill for the owner of a house assessed at $100,000.

My analysis looked at 27 districts -- no data was available for Akron and Lackawanna, and Buffalo doesn't levy property taxes for schools.

First let's look at property taxes on a $100,000 house:

District Taxes
Cheektowaga-Sloan $     2,770
Cleveland Hill $     2,498
Depew $     2,005
North Collins $     1,959
Grand Island $     1,954
Kenmore-Tonawanda $     1,905
Amherst $     1,890
Williamsville $     1,823
Springville $     1,785
Lakeshore $     1,778
Tonawanda (city) $     1,771
Eden $     1,770
Hamburg $     1,762
West Seneca $     1,732
Alden $     1,710
Cheektowaga $     1,694
Gowanda $     1,670
Maryvale $     1,646
Holland $     1,638
Clarence $     1,587
Iroquois * $     1,538
Lancaster $     1,532
Orchard Park $     1,512
Frontier $     1,485
Pioneer $     1,421
Sweet Home $     1,287
East Aurora $     1,037
* average of six different tax rates within district

Next up: How much proposed budgets grew:

District Increase
Maryvale 7.7%
Gowanda 7.6%
Lancaster 6.8%
Grand Island 6.5%
Springville 6.1%
Frontier 6%
Hamburg 5.8%
Eden 5.2%
Amherst 5.1%
Kenmore-Tonawanda 5%
North Collins 4.8%
Pioneer 4.7%
Cheektowaga-Sloan 4.6%
Cleveland Hill 4.5%
Clarence 4.4%
Orchard Park 4.3%
Williamsville 4.1%
Cheektowaga 4%
Iroquois 4%
West Seneca 3.9%
Alden 3.9%
Sweet Home 3.8%
Depew 3.4%
East Aurora 3.3%
Tonawanda (city) 3.1%
Holland 3%
Lakeshore 1.2%