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School Zone: What happened in 2010

Thousands of you now make the School Zone blog your destination for education information every week. 

Vivian Evans2 In case you tuned in late to the School Zone, here are just a few of the things you might have missed since we launched the blog in September:

- The "Where in the world is Vivian Evans?" series of posts and related news stories culminated this month with the resignation of the Board of Education's East District representative.

- Readers met Lawrence Martinez, the retired Niagara Falls administrator who got more than $200,000 in his final year working for the district.

- The Buffalo News' first-ever live chat with newsmakers was right here at the School Zone, featuring Phil Rumore and Chris Jacobs fielding reader questions about cosmetic surgery benefits for Buffalo teachers.

 - One of our most popular posts reported on a national study detailing the dire reality facing black males in American schools.

Boy with backpack - We brought you the audio from a panel discussion on school reform in Buffalo, featuring Rumore, Superintendent James A. Williams and Assemblyman Sam Hoyt.

- Lessons on school reform from former Washington, D.C., chancellor Michelle Rhee provided food for thought.

- Readers weighed in on residency for Buffalo teachers, downsizing the Board of Education, and what makes schools great.

The School Zone blog will be on hiatus for the next couple of weeks, but mark your calendar: We will return on Monday, Jan. 3. In the meantime, if you have any education news or ideas you'd like to share, please e-mail me at

Here's wishing everyone has a safe and restful holiday season!

- Mary Pasciak

E-mail me at or follow me on Follow  SchoolZoneBlog on Twitter Twitter. Check out the Buffalo News' education page at

Board still mulling residency for Buffalo teachers

The Buffalo Board of Ed on Wednesday once again kicked around the idea of rescinding the residency requirement for district employees -- but it was clear that Ralph Hernandez was not going to get enough votes that night to support the move.

The usual arguments were floated in support of rescinding the requirement, namely: some quality candidates might shy away from the district because of the residency rule; people don't like to be told where to live; most large districts do not have a residency rule; and the residency rule can't be effectively enforced anyway. Mary Ruth Kapsiak and Pamela Cahill came out in support of rescinding the rule, and teachers union president Phil Rumore pled the case for reversing the policy, too.

There wasn't much Wednesday night in the way of arguments specifically in favor of keeping the residency rule in place. But a few board members advocated the idea of offering financial incentives for employees to move into Buffalo -- either in place of a residency rule, or as something to complement such a rule.

At large board member John Licata suggested the board should not voluntarily concede to rescinding the residency policy. "It strikes me that when we have a contract that's still being negotiated... I've learned from my children how to negotiate -- you don't just give it away without something in return."

Rumore recoiled at the thought. But Superintendent James A. Williams seemed to like Licata's idea.

"There are two things we need," Williams said: an earlier notification date when teachers decide to retire, and a modification of the teacher transfer policy. "We cannot continue to transfer 500, 600 teachers in the district (every year). That's what I want to see attached to this."

Rumore agreed that there shouldn't be hundreds of transfers a year -- but he had a different take on things.

"If you're happy at a school, you're not going to apply for a transfer," Rumore said. "I would ask this board, rather than just looking at the transfers, dig deep."

The board decided to send the residency issue back to committee, so a decision will be at least a month away.

- Mary Pasciak

E-mail me at or follow me on Follow  SchoolZoneBlog on Twitter Twitter. Check out the Buffalo News' education page at

Gunman fires at school board

Local school boards these days have a lot to contend with: shrinking revenues, rising costs, labor contracts, high stakes tests, and on and on.

But all that pales in comparison to what the school board in Panama City, Fla., dealt with this week when a routine board meeting turned into a nightmare.

A man named Clay Duke spray-painted a circle with a big letter V inside it, then pulled out a gun and ordered everyone out of the room except for the superintendent and male board members. Board members begged Duke not to shoot them. The superintendent even pleaded with Duke to let everyone else go and deal with him one on one.

But Duke opened fire on the board, getting several shots off (but not hitting anyone) before a security guard fired at Duke, who fell to the floor and ended up shooting himself in the head.

(This version of the video does not show the ultimate outcome.)

Duke suffered a host of problems, including a criminal past, a mental health history and money troubles, the Associated Press reported. What brought him before officials of the Bay County School District, apparently, was the fact that his wife had been fired by them. It seems it was, as they say, the perfect storm, unlikely to be repeated there or anywhere else.

Yet the incident seems likely to have school board members and school admininstrators around the country taking a second look around their board rooms this week. (Remember how much the shootings at Columbine ended up altering schools across the country?) Locally, Buffalo is one of the few districts to have security guards present at board meetings.

Will officials in any local schools look at Clay Duke and decide to reconsider security arrangements at their own board meetings?

- Mary Pasciak

E-mail me at or follow me on Follow  SchoolZoneBlog on Twitter Twitter. Check out the Buffalo News' education page at

Who in the world will replace Vivian Evans?

Vivian O. Evans submitted her resignation from the Buffalo Board of Education tonight, effective Jan. 5.

Vivian Evans The East District representative, who has been living in Maryland since the end of July, did not make it to the board meeting. She asked fellow board member Florence Johnson to read her letter of resignation to the board. This is what Evans wrote:

"Dear Mr. Hernandez and Fellow Board Members:

"The purpose of my correspondence to you is to notify you that I am resigning my seat on the City of Buffalo's Board of Education effective Wednesday January 5, 2010 [sic]. While I regret that I will not complete the term to which I was elected by the voters of the East district, I have enjoyed serving my constituents and working on behalf of all of the students in the Buffalo Public Schools.

"I hope that the Board will act quickly after the date of my resignation to fill the East District seat, and that all Board members will focus on what is most important -- providing the very best education for all of the students in the Buffalo Public Schools. Thank you."

Well, it seems that the district's cell phone records have helped answer the question: Where in the world is Vivian Evans?

The next question is: Who in the world will replace Vivian Evans? (In the sense of filling the East District seat, that is, not in the sense of moving 400 miles away while serving on the Board of Ed.)

The board now has 30 days from the date of her resignation to find a replacement. Any East District resident who's interested in serving the remaining two and a half years of her term should send a resume to James Kane, chief of staff, at 801 City Hall. Applications must be received by noon on Jan. 7. The board will interview applicants before making a decision.

To be eligible, an individual must: be a citizen; be a qualified voter; never have been convicted of a felony; have lived in the City of Buffalo for three years; and have lived in the East District for at least one year prior to appointment.

- Mary Pasciak

E-mail me at or follow me on Follow  SchoolZoneBlog on Twitter Twitter. Check out the Buffalo News' education page at

Vivian Evans phones home

More than four months ago, Vivian Evans announced that she'd taken a job in Maryland, but planned to keep her seat on the Buffalo Board of Education. Ever since then, she's refused to talk about the specifics of where she lives or how much time she actually spends in Buffalo, among other things.

Well, maybe Evans isn't talking, but her cell phone records are.

Vivian Evans Our story today reports that the past few months of bills for her district-owned cell phone indicate that she moved to Maryland at the end of July. She didn't come back to Buffalo at all in August or in October, according to the phone records.

(In September, when I prefaced a question to her by noting that she's living full time in Maryland, she shot back: "Am I? I think that's an assumption everyone's making." Hmm...)

While Evans has been living 400 miles away, she has not, in fact, been out of touch with the district. The East District rep has remained in contact with many of her fellow board members, as well as Superintendent James A. Williams, the records show.

Evans has been in closest contact with at large board member Florence Johnson; since
Evans moved to Maryland, the two exchanged more than 65 phone calls through the end of October. Evans and Christopher Jacobs exchanged about 30 calls in that time. And Evans has been in touch with the superintendent well over a dozen times.
But that's not all Evans has been using her district cell phone for.

She has also used her phone to call a variety of other people and places, including: New
York State's Department of Labor unemployment claims line; the New York State Department of
Taxation; M&T Bank; Bank of America; TIAA-CREF; the New York State Income Tax Protest and
Resolutions Bureau; the New York State Retirement System; and her ex-husband (15 times).

The district's cell phone policy, it might be worth noting, states that "employees shall make every attempt to use their district-owned cell phones for business purposes only."

- Mary Pasciak

E-mail me at or follow me on Follow  SchoolZoneBlog on Twitter Twitter. Check out the Buffalo News' education page at

'Race to Nowhere' coming to Western New York

"Race to Nowhere," one of the latest edu-mentaries, is headed this way.

This time, the issue is not charters vs. traditional public schools.

It's school-related pressure -- way too much of it -- vs. our kids. And the kids don't seem to be winning.

Vicki Abeles decided to make the film when she saw her own children suffering physical ailments because they were so stressed out over school-related pressure -- and after a young girl in her community killed herself, apparently for similar reasons.

Abeles interviews students, parents, teachers and education experts across the country to paint the picture of "the dark side of America's achievement culture."

"These kids are so over-scheduled and tired," one expert, a clinical psychologist, says in the film. "I'm afraid our children are going to sue us for stealing their childhoods."

The culprits are many, according to the film, from the intense focus on standardized test scores to society's obsession with success as defined by income -- resulting in a parallel obsession with a need to get into "good" schools. Many of the adults interviewed in "Race to Nowhere" acknowledge their own complicity in the situation.

"We're all caught up in it. We're all afraid that our kids aren't going to be able to be as successful as we are," one mom says.

With the exception of openings in a couple of major cities, the film is screening in small community settings, with each screening followed by a discussion. Abeles has said that's by design, to foster conversations that might help families and schools work toward solutions.

Locally, it's showing at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Park School, 4625 Harlem Road, Amherst. The screening is free and open to the public, but seating is limited. Reservations are encouraged. Call Krista Gutzman at 839-1243, ext. 100, or contact her at

- Mary Pasciak

E-mail me at or follow me on Follow  SchoolZoneBlog on Twitter Twitter. Check out the Buffalo News' education page at

If you had a public pension, how big would it be?

The folks at the Empire Center for New York State Policy (a project of the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank) have just unveiled a little gizmo that calculates what your pension would be if you were a public employee.

It asks you to enter some basic info: target retirement age, years worked, final average salary and gender. Once you do that and hit the Calculate button, presto: You get an estimate of what your monthly and annual pension payments would be. You also get an estimate of how much money you'd need to save on your own to accrue that amount for retirement.

The calculator is online at

- Mary Pasciak

E-mail me at or follow me on Follow  SchoolZoneBlog on Twitter Twitter. Check out the Buffalo News' education page at

Enough votes to overturn residency rule for Buffalo teachers?

Buffalo Board of Education President Ralph Hernandez made an impassioned plea to his fellow board members Wednesday night to repeal the residency rule for district employees.

As the policy now stands, employees of the Buffalo Public Schools must live in the city (unless they were hired before 1992, when the residency rule went into effect). New hires get six months to comply. Some teachers -- those teaching in "high need" areas, which currently include special education and math -- are exempt, by virtue of a 2002 amendment to the residency policy.

Hernandez argues that requiring teachers to live in the city restricts the potential talent pool unnecessarily.

Buffalo neighborhood "We need to get the best and brightest. We should have no barriers whatsoever in looking out there to attract best professionals out there," he said. "Nowhere in the roles and responsibilities of a board member is it stated the Board of Ed is responsible for growing the population of the city, generating revenues or protecting the integrity of the tax base. That’s not the responsibility of the Board of Ed. That’s why they have a Common Council."

Of the 50 biggest school districts in the country, only two have a residency policy, he said. In Buffalo, Superintendent James A. Williams supports repealing the residency policy, Hernandez pointed out, as do the president of the teachers union and the president of the administrators union.

Granted, the full board was not there Wednesday when Hernandez made his presentation at a committee meeting -- Vivan Evans and Mary Ruth Kapsiak were not there -- but none of Hernandez's colleagues on the board spoke in support of repealing the residency rule.

"I do believe residency needs to be tweaked a little, yes, but rescinded, no," Lou Petrucci said. "Granted, it does limit the pool (of job candidates). But  other things have a larger impact, like having lower salaries than our suburban counterparts, or not hiring people until September or October."

Florence Johnson said she thinks it's important for teachers to be stakeholders in the community they work in, to help advocate for those who have trouble advocating for themselves. Jason McCarthy agreed.

"I just feel that teachers, they need to be invested in our community," he said. "By being invested in the community, they have to live in the neighborhoods, in the borders of the city."

The board could vote on residency as soon as next week. But you don't have to wait that long to weigh in.


- Mary Pasciak

E-mail me at or follow me on Follow  SchoolZoneBlog on Twitter Twitter. Check out the Buffalo News' education page at

Lessons from Middletown

We invited all nine members of Buffalo's Board of Education to share what they've learned at school conferences this fall. Last week, Lou Petrucci wrote about the possibilities of using the iPad as a textbook.

This week, Pamela Cahill, the Ferry District representative, shares what she learned about the Middletown Enlarged City School District down in Orange County. There, about one-fourth of the students are black, one-fourth are white; nearly half are Hispanic; and a small percentage are Asian. Pamela Cahill

She writes:

I attended a conference in New York that focused on pre-k through 12th diversity in one school district.

The school district has eight schools. Two schools are K-1; two are 2-5; two are 6-8; one is pre-k and one is a high school. The district has 6,960 students total and has earned the title as a model district praised by Chancellor Merryl Tish, Board of Regents.

Their focus is to fulfill their mission: "To strive to provide fiscally sound educational opportunities in a safe environment that continuously supports our diverse student population. We will enable all students to graduate, to reach their full potential, to become life-long learners, and to be competitive, productive members of society."

Middletown As a model district, by creating life-long learners and preparing students for life, the unique school stands out from the rest because the district takes advantage of bridging with daycare centers and nurseries to offer free tuition for their half-day beginner students early on. Early intervention begins at the start of school enrollment. A counselor is in the schools as a guidance for all students, and the services are provided through high school.

There are 4,000 computers and access to online learning. Middle school students are engaged in English as a core course and as a fifth core course, also. Students are well prepared to speak and read by the time they graduate to high school. At the high school level, students have the opportunity to earn up to 33 college credits from 9th through 12th grade. The students have the use of a college and a professor who helps the high school students for college prep and advising.

Any student k-12 who shows high academic achievement will be challenged with accelerated courses. Parents are part of the process in helping their child prepare for college. The arts are an integral part early on in the lower grades to help students in socialization, creativity, experimentation, and expression of self. Many of the students are even more successful because of their experiences in the arts that have allowed them to further their talents in other extracurricular activities and academics.

- Mary Pasciak

E-mail me at or follow me on Follow  SchoolZoneBlog on Twitter Twitter.

Buffalo's next round of persistently lowest-achieving schools

Sometime in the next few weeks, the State Education Department is going to release the next list of "persistently lowest-achieving" schools in New York. Once a school gets the label, it's eligible for up to $6 million over three years to implement a turnaround plan, which could include closing in its present format.

Last school year, as you may recall, that list included seven schools in Buffalo: Bennett, Burgard, Lafayette and South Park high schools; Riverside Institute of Technology; Martin Luther King Multicultural Institute; International School 45.

This year, another seven Buffalo schools will acquire the unwanted designation, numerous officials have confirmed. State Ed has not yet announced which schools those will be -- but district officials have indicated some of the schools the seven may be drawn from:

Grabiarz school - Buffalo Elementary School of Technology (School 6)
- Bilingual Center (School 33)
- Futures Academy (School 37)
- Lovejoy Discovery School 43
- Dr. Charles Drew Science Magnet (School 59)
- Grabiarz School of Excellence (School 79) (pictured at right)
- West Hertel Elementary School 94
- Waterfront School 95
- Campus West School 96
- Grover Cleveland High School

We already know that Grover Cleveland is in its final year anyway, so it seems there would not be much point in naming a soon-to-be-nonexistent school to a watch list. 

That means we still don't know which seven of the remaining nine will make the state's watch list. 

Earlier, we reported, based on a presentation to the board, that all the district's PLA schools for this year would be drawn from the list above. Amber Dixon, who oversees accountability in the Buffalo Public Schools, clarified that the list of 10 schools noted above are just some of the schools that could be identified as persistently lowest-achieving. Some Buffalo high schools could, in fact, also land on the list, she says.

(You might remember that last year, when four Buffalo high schools landed on the watch list, Superintendent James A. Williams often pointed out that in his first five years here, the district focused its efforts on improving instruction at the elementary level, and had made great gains...)

Worth noting: The district has already announced plans to close Campus West, whose lease with Buffalo State College expires in June. And staff report that administrators have told them that Grabiarz School will technically close at the end of this school year, and reopen as a pre-k through eighth grade building next year (it's currently grades give through eight).

Could City Hall be planning ahead for the restructuring plans it's going to be required to submit next spring?

- Mary Pasciak

E-mail me at or follow me on Follow  SchoolZoneBlog on Twitter Twitter.

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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 |