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View the replay of the School Zone chat with Rumore, Jacobs on cosmetic surgery

National spotlight on cosmetic surgery issue in Buffalo

Fox News has already picked up the Buffalo News story about the dramatic increase in cosmetic surgery costs taxpayers are picking up for Buffalo Public Schools employees and their families.

Chris Jacobs This weekend, the local story will be featured at 7:45 a.m. Sunday on FOX News & Friends, the morning news show. Buffalo Board of Education Member Christopher Jacobs (pictured at left) will appear on the show.

Word of Jacobs' TV appearance came via a press release from a local public relations firm. Earlier this week, Jacobs said the district is not paying the firm for its work. Rather, he said, the public relations help comes from "a friend" of his.

Jacobs has called for the district to investigate the recent increase in costs for cosmetic surgery. In 2004, the tab was under $1 million. Last year, according to Jacobs, it was nearly $9 million.

Other media outlets across the country have also picked up the story, including the San Francisco Examiner, the Washington Post, and Business Week. Phil Rumore

Buffalo News readers will have the chance to ask questions directly to Jacobs and Buffalo Teachers Federation President Philip Rumore on Monday. The two men have agreed to participate in a live chat at 1 p.m. Monday here at the School Zone blog.

So start lining up your questions now.

No preregistration is required for readers who want to ask questions -- you can just type in your questions during the chat. We'll try to get to as many as we can.

- Mary Pasciak

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Saving face(s): Cosmetic surgery costs for school employees skyrocket

Bryce Link, a senior analyst with Buffalo's control board, recently was perusing an old news story. "The Public Cost of Vanity," written five years ago by Buffalo News reporters Sue Schulman and Lou Michel, detailed the then-recent upswing in cosmetic surgery costs for public employees in Erie and Niagara counties.

They quoted Dr. Jeffrey Meilman, a local plastic surgeon, who said: "When I go to national meetings of plastic surgeons, they can't believe there's a cosmetic insurance rider here. The Buffalo area remains an anomaly because it has the rider. The vast majority of other areas never had it."

The story got Link thinking -- so he started pulling together more recent numbers. "I was trying to get to what the costs were and how they've grown," he said. "I've seen the numbers increase."  Dr. Kulwant Bhangoo

In 2004, Buffalo Public Schools employees' and their family members' cosmetic surgery procedures cost taxpayers $922,621. Five years later, three separate doctors were each billing the district more than that. One of them, Dr. Kulwant Bhangoo (pictured at right), billed the district $4.3 million for procedures last year.

Board of Education member Chris Jacobs caught wind of Link's analysis and made it his mission to get word out about the huge increase in cosmetic surgery costs. Jacobs says the steep increase in costs over so short a time warrants an investigation. If there's wrongdoing, he says, the authorities should be called in.

"It smacks of abuse," Jacobs said. "We can't afford this."

Phil Rumore, president of the teachers union, says he's not exactly sure what accounts for the dramatic increase. But he says he's ready to give up the cosmetic surgery rider in contract talks. He notes that the teachers haven't had a contract since 2004 -- and says it doesn't make much sense for Jacobs to be blaming employees for using benefits the union is willing to negotiate away.

"The only reason it's still there is because the board hasn't agreed to a new contract with us," Rumore said. "If anybody is responsible for there still being a cosmetic surgery rider, the board is."

- Mary Pasciak

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A new twist to snow days: Stay home, but log on and learn

For years, the equation has been simple for kids in Western New York: Snow day = bonus vacation day. Snowstorm

But now, a tiny school district in Ohio has taken a step that could change all that.

When the snow gets too deep to trudge to school in the Mississinawa Valley Schools this year, students are going to have to log on and access their lessons online, the Columbus Dispatch reports.

It looks like this is more or less a pilot program in Ohio. Before officials with Ohio's Department of Education let any other district follow suit, they want to make sure it's going well in Mississinawa Valley first.

And back here at home, no doubt, plenty of kids will be hoping the idea doesn't snowball.

- Mary Pasciak

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Saving an American high school, by way of China

A Maine high school not far from Mount Katahdin is suffering from some of the same problems many high schools across the country are grappling with: declining enrollment and increasingly scarce resources.

Officials at Stearns High School are looking overseas for what they hope will be an answer to their woes, the New York Times reports. They hope to recruit students from China, who will pay $27,000 a year for tuition, room and board.

Chinese class Reporter Abby Goodnough writes: "On Friday, Dr. Smith left for China, where he is spending a week pitching Stearns High to school officials, parents and students in Beijing, Shanghai and two other cities. He has hired a consultant to help him make connections in China, lobbied Millinocket’s elected officials and business owners to embrace the plan and even directed the school’s cafeteria workers to add Chinese food to the menu." He's also checking out vacant properties in the area in search of future dorms for the students.

The plan brings to mind some local efforts to draw foreign students here to enhance existing programs. Several private schools, including Park School, Cardinal O'Hara High School and Nichols, have a number of international students. Buffalo Seminary has even opened a dorm for some of its international students.

And Buffalo Superintendent James A. Williams last year visited China to start laying the groundwork for a public school here that would enroll half its students from Buffalo and half from China.

Each of these scenarios, of course, brings its own challenges.

At the outset, for instance, Buffalo officials said their plan likely would take 10 years to come to fruition. A major hurdle, they said, would be lining up the necessary funding.

And in Maine, Smith says a major stumbling block will be a federal rule that limits foreign students from spending more than a year in a public school in the United States. For now, he's focusing on bringing in Chinese students for a year at a time, while he tries to persuade Congress to change that rule.

Goodnough writes: "Dr. Smith, a native of Maine who has traveled outside New England only rarely, conceded he did not know much about China. But from what he had heard and read in recent months, he said, two things were clear: China had a large middle class with money to spend, and its students wanted to study here.

“'They want to learn English, and they want a college education,' he said. 'If we can get them into a college here, they will have achieved their major goal.'”

- Mary Pasciak

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Don't let the bedbugs bite

For the past few years, Buffalo State College has leased rooms for students at the Adam's Mark Hotel, to compensate for the shortage of dorm rooms on campus.

As the student newspaper recently reported, living in the hotel can be a bit different from the traditional dorm experience, from the good to the bad: from maid service making the bed and cleaning the bathroom to having to wait to catch a shuttle to campus every time you have to get to class.

BedbugThis year, some BSC students living at the Adam's Mark had an extra headache to deal with: bedbugs.

The Record reports:

The rampant spread of bedbugs across the United States has come to Buffalo, and several students living at the Adams Mark Hotel have had to cope with the annoying parasites.

One student, who asked to remain anonymous, said that her roommate was the first to suffer from the biting insects.

“She started waking up with bites, but they were like welts,” she said.

They were moved to another room. However, they were not warned to thoroughly clean their belongings, and bedbugs are known for being notorious hitchhikers. Soon both girls started waking up with bug bites again.

 “We’re thinking that we brought it with us,” she said.

They moved once more, making sure this time that their bedding was clean and bug-free, and have not had further problems.

Buffalo State is hardly alone. Colleges across the country have been reporting bedbug problems in the dorms. MSNBC reported that the University of Florida is baking its mattresses at high temperatures to get rid of the pests, and Texas A&M brought in dogs to sniff out the bedbugs.

An expert told the Today show: “U.S. college campuses are really the perfect setting. We have large numbers of students coming from all over the country and, in fact, all over the world every semester, and it’s inevitable that somebody is going to bring bugs with them. And once the bugs are introduced, they can rapidly spread because of all the interactions students have visiting each other’s rooms.”

- Mary Pasciak

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Williams, Rumore and others talk school reform

Following the Western New York premiere of "Waiting for Superman" last week, a panel discussion at the Amherst Dipson Theatre provided a forum for exchanging ideas about school reform here in Buffalo.

Panelists brought to the table a variety of experiences and perspectives: Superintendent James A. Williams; Buffalo Teachers Federation President Philip Rumore; Assemblyman Sam Hoyt (a vocal advocate of charter schools); Keith Frome, head of the middle school at King Center Charter School; and Joy McDuffie, a Buffalo parent and drop-out prevention activist.

The good news: No fights broke out (although things got heated between Hoyt and Rumore for a couple of minutes).

Even better news: This may be the start of something more. Hoyt offered to organize the next public conversation about school reform -- and Williams said he was on board with that, even suggesting it be held at Performing Arts.

The audio is available below, in two parts, so you can hear it all for yourself. The whole thing is just a bit over half an hour long. Our thanks to the organizers of the event, Buffalo ReformED, for letting us share their audio with you.

In case you can't crank up the volume to listen right now, here's a sampling of what you'll hear once you do have a chance to listen. I asked each of the panelists to share one success they've had in bringing positive change to local schools.

Williams talked about the former Seneca Vocational High School, which was closed and reopened as the Math Science Technology Preparatory School. He pointed to a longer school day and longer school year as essential to turning a school around.

Hoyt cited the state Legislature's adoption of the charter school law and subsequent lifting of the cap on the number of charters.

McDuffie said the city is sorely lacking success stories in preventing dropouts. She called for more programs to bring kids back to high school -- and the need for the community to adopt a "culture of learning."

Frome discussed King Center Charter School's use of data in better understanding and meeting the needs of each student.

And Rumore talked about the teachers union's role in establishing a scholarship fund for students.

Panelists also talked about how the educational landscape in Buffalo differs from what was depicted in "Waiting for Superman," and what they plan to do to continue working to improve local education.

Here's the first half of the discussion:

And the second half of the discussion:

 - Mary Pasciak

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Ways to say goodbye

Three Buffalo principals last week found themselves in the unwanted situation of having to say goodbye to a job they didn't want to leave.

Federal guidelines for school turnaround grants require that districts remove any principal who has been in place three years or more at any persistently lowest-achieving school. In Buffalo, that affected Michael Mogavero, who'd been at Riverside Institute of Technology for about six years; Florence Krieter, who'd been principal at Burgard Vocational High School about four years; and Colleen Carota, who'd been at International School 45 for more than a decade.

Earlier this month, Buffalo filed revised grant applications with the state Education Department saying Carota would be replaced by an assistant principal -- and that Krieter and Mogavero already had been replaced.

Last week marked the final days for each of the three principals in their respective schools. Each handled their farewell a bit differently.

Mogavero, apparently, told his staff and students at Riverside that he'd be gone as of Monday -- leading one teacher and one student to make impassioned pleas to the Board of Education last week to keep him in place. The student, senior Anthony Vega, said Mogavero was "a buddy" to the students, and would be sorely missed.

At International School 45, Carota skipped the personal goodbyes. In a memo circulated to staff on Thursday, she minced no words:

"Parting is such sweet sorrow. Ms. Nashir is now the acting principal. Please support her. Goodbye ... " And then went on to issue reminders about the school bookfair and other such housekeeping matters.

At Burgard, teachers said, Krieter opted for neither the personal conversations nor the staff memo. She did not tell anyone where she was going, or when, they said -- leaving students and staff alike to wonder who would be in charge this week.

As we report in the paper today, the state approved Buffalo's plans to turn around International School 45 -- but rejected the plans for Riverside and Burgard.

Exactly what that means for Mogavero and Krieter remains to be seen. Acting principals have been named at the two schools. But the superintendent won't say where Mogavero or Krieter have been reassigned to.

There's now talk that they could return to the principal spots they left just days ago. The district didn't get the funding that came with strings attached that required those principals be moved, so it's possible the superintendent could decide to hold off on the moves until next school year, according to Ralph Hernandez, president of the Board of Education.

One thing does seem certain: Carota is the new principal at BUILD Academy, a pre-k through grade eight school that the state took off its list of schools in need of improvement last year.

The state approved Buffalo's turnaround plan for International School 45, where Carota had been assigned for many years, so the district must stick with reassigning her in order to get the $2 million Albany's offering for School 45.

 - Mary Pasciak

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Superintendent's memo says massive layoffs 'not possible'

Buffalo School Superintendent James A. Williams told WGRZ-TV today (video below) that funding shortfalls facing the district -- resulting from state decisions affecting employee pensions and charter school funding, resulting in a projected $22.8 million gap -- could result in widespread layoffs.

Williams said the governor needs to call the Legislature back in session to address these issues that affect the district's revenues and expenditures.

A reporter asked him, "If it doesn't happen, what kind of layoffs are you looking at in this school year?"

The bottom line, Williams told her, is that "we're looking at pretty close to 900 individuals we would have to lay off." That would be about one in six district employees.

But Wednesday, in a memo to the Board of Education and the Western New York delegation to the State Legislature, Williams said quite clearly that was not going to happen.

He outlined four possible solutions to help close the shorftall. His exact words, in describing one of those options:

"For a half year, the position elimination would be 912, which is not possible, not recommended or being considered by the administration at this time."

 - Mary Pasciak

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WGRZ-TV video from what Williams told the station

Where in the World Is Vivian Evans? An update

As usual, the whereabouts of East District member Vivian O. Evans was the subject of some interest during Wednesday night's Buffalo Board of Education meeting.

Vivian Evans You might recall that Evans informed the board two months ago that she had accepted a job in Maryland, but planned to retain her seat on the board, back home in Buffalo. She said she would fly back every two weeks to attend the meetings.

Three weeks ago, we reported that out of five recent board sessions, Evans had missed two; been late for two; and been on time for one.

Wednesday night, Evans never showed up.

But this time, the majority of the board went on record refusing to excuse her absence.

Those voting to officially excuse Evans' absence: Mary Ruth Kapsiak (Central District) and Florence Johnson (at large).

Those voting not to excuse her absence: Pamela Cahill (Ferry District), Christopher Jacobs (at large), Jason McCarthy (North District), Louis Petrucci (Park District) and Ralph Hernandez (West District).

There was little discussion among board members about Evans' situation. Cahill was the only board member to comment specifically on the vote, saying: "No, I'm not going to accept someone living in another state."

A few minutes later, in a somewhat oblique reference to Evans, Cahill complained about what she dubbed a lack of ethics and integrity of late, including voting on "whether a board member should be here or not." She said she's been taking calls from some of Evans' constituents, because Evans is not around to take them.

Kapsiak responded, saying board members sometimes take calls from constituents whose board representatives are in town. "So we should be very careful when we start talking about taking calls from families," she told Cahill.

For the record: The board on Wednesday also took a vote on whether to excuse the absence of John Licata, an at-large board member. The result? A unanimous "yes" vote, 7-0.

- Mary Pasciak

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About School Zone

Denise Jewell Gee

Denise Jewell Gee

Denise Jewell Gee joined The Buffalo News in 2007 and currently covers education and suburban schools. She also writes a column for the City & Region section and previously covered government in Erie County and Niagara Falls. Gee graduated from Boston University with degrees in journalism and political science.

@denisejewellgee |

Tiffany Lankes

Tiffany Lankes

Tiffany Lankes joined The Buffalo News in 2013 and primarily covers the Buffalo Public Schools. She has written about education since 2003 at newspapers in Florida and New York. In 2008, she was a nominated finalist for The Pulitzer Prize. Lankes is an Amherst native and graduate of Sacred Heart Academy and Syracuse University. She started her journalism career writing for the News’ NeXt section.

@TiffanyLankes |

Sandra Tan

Sandra Tan

Sandra Tan has been a cityside reporter for The Buffalo News since 2000 and currently covers the Buffalo Public Schools beat. She previously covered the Williamsville school district and was a full-time education reporter for five years prior to joining The News. She graduated from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.

@BNschoolzone |

Deidre Williams

Deidre Williams

Deidre Williams began working for The Buffalo News in 1999 and currently covers Buffalo Public Schools. She formerly was a suburban reporter on the Northtowns beat and has been a cityside reporter covering communities since 2004. Williams has a mass communications degree from Towson University.

@DeidreWilliamsB |