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Strange bedfellows

What do Councilman Mickey Kearns, businessman Carl Paladino, and State Education Commissioner David Steiner have in common?

They're all talking about state oversight of the Buffalo Public Schools.

In a recent meeting with The Buffalo News' editorial board, Steiner volunteered that the Board of Regents is considering a proposal that would that would allow the state to intervene in a district "that is almost beyond repair."

Steiner "The idea would be to appoint a three-person board that would in a sense be like a receivership model, Steiner said. The Board of Regents talked about this last year, he said, but failed to get support in the state Legislature to make it happen.

"I'm sure it will come back to the board and they will think about the best plan to advance to the Legislature (this year)," he said.

Steiner took a pass when asked if he thought Buffalo was one of those districts in need of state oversight -- a district, as he described it, "where a particular school board is clearly failing its kids." But when he described the reasoning for why such state oversight might be needed in a district, it was hard to miss the reference to just a few months ago, when Buffalo Superintendent James A. Williams nearly walked away from $42 million in federal funds because he did not want to move three principals from failing schools.

In talking about the need for state oversight in some districts, Steiner said:

"The issue here is that we really don't want cities, towns to leave federal money on the table when these schools so desperately need to improve. School Improvement Grants are up to $2 million a year for three years; $6 million for a single school is a lot of money. It would be a tragedy, it seems to me, if the districts where there are designated (failing) schools can't get together and use those funds for this purpose."

Paladino Earlier this month, Paladino lashed out at the board for its inability to get anything done and called for them to either resign or be subject to -- you guessed it -- state takeover.

He called for "a special master" to be appointed by the state until the Legislature acted to replace the board with individuals who meet "minimum standards."

Kearns A few days later, in a Common Council committee meeting, Kearns questioned why we have a Board of Education in Buffalo. The city schools are in such dire shape, he suggested, that model doesn't seem to be too effective.

"Maybe we need to bring someone in for oversight. Maybe we need to bring in something like a control board for the Buffalo Public Schools," he said.

- Mary Pasciak

How do New York's students measure up?

During his State of the Union speech Tuesday, President Obama told the country that the key to "winning the future" was a quintessentially American trait: innovation. The key to that innovation, he said, is a greater emphasis on education.

"If we want innovation to produce jobs in America and not overseas — then we also have to win the race to educate our kids," Obama said.

At Thursday's community forum at Erie 1 BOCES in West Seneca, New York State Education Commissioner David Steiner said America isn't winning the race. In fact, it's not even in the top ten.

Edupics

The U.S. was 2nd worldwide in college graduation rates in 1995. Now (with data from 2006), it has sunk to 15th.

But New York State Regents Chancellor Emeritus Robert Bennett said that while he believes America's schools need to improve, global comparisons are not necessarily relevant.

Listen to Bennett talk about the State of the Union's education message:

"There’s an equity issue here about performing students and we've got to work on getting all students," Bennett said of the challenges posed in President Obama's address. "That’s why comparing to other countries is nonsense, because they select their students, we don’t. All of our kids we expect high things from."

Bennett went on to say that Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan are making "appropriate and proper changes" in expecting more out of teachers and administrators. He said he believes the reforms in place and those mentioned in today's Buffalo News article are a good step toward progress.

"We're on top of that," Bennett said. "I think that New York can show probably way more progress than most other states in the nation about what's on our table, and I think they know that, too, otherwise, we wouldn’t have gotten Race to the Top [funding]. We were the second-highest ranked state in the nation."

What do you think? How do you feel America's students are stacking up across the nation, and the globe? And what do you think of Steiner's proposed reforms?

-Charlie Specht

E-mail me at [email protected] or e-mail education reporter Mary Pasciak at [email protected]. Follow me on Twitter @CharlieBuffNews. Check out the Buffalo News' education page at www.buffalonews.com/schools.

The teachers who wanted to leave their schools

Every year, hundreds of teachers in the Buffalo Public Schools exercise the option of requesting a transfer to another school. Last year, about one-third of them actually ended up transferring.

For the current school year, 587 teachers -- about one in six -- asked to be moved to another school.

This year, though, Superintendent James A. Williams decided not to grant any of the transfers. He said this summer: "I think, in fairness to the children, we need to stabilize the district. It doesn't make sense to keep moving people around."

The teachers union, of course, disagrees. President Phil Rumore said: "So you leave somebody at the school who doesn't want to be at the school -- and that's going to have a more stabilizing effect?"

Well, either way you want to look at it, here's the list of teacher transfer requests, by school. (This information just recently became available through the district.) Because the number of teachers is different at each school, it seemed to make more sense to present this information as a percentage of the teachers at each school who asked for a transfer, rather than giving the raw numbers.

Teachers can -- and do -- request a transfer for any number of reasons. Some want a school that starts earlier or later in the morning. Some want a school closer to their home. Some simply want a change. Some are fed up with the environment in their school.

Keep in mind, these requests were made last spring.

Here they are:

School # School name Percent of teachers requesting transfers
3 D'Youville Porter Campus 9%
6 Buffalo Elementary School of Tech. 27%
17 Early Childhood Center #17 25%
18 Dr. Antonia Pantoja School  16%
19 Native American Magnet School 9%
27 Hillery Park Elementary 20%
30 Frank A. Sedita Elementary School 20%
31 Harriet Ross Tubman School 16%
32 Bennett Park Montessori 11%
33 Bilingual Center School 33 29%
37 Futures Academy 32%
39 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  19%
43 Lovejoy Discovery School 24%
45 International School 45 37%
46 Adult Learning Center 1%
53 Community School 53 23%
54 Dr. George Blackman School 19%
59 Dr. Charles R. Drew Magnet School 47%
61 Early Childhood Center #61 21%
64 Frederick Law Olmsted School 64 3%
65 Roosevelt Early Childhood Center 17%
66 North Park Middle Academy 32%
67 Discovery School 28%
69 Houghton Academy 6%
72 Lorraine Elementary School 6%
74 Hamlin Park 25%
76 Herman Badillo Bilingual Academy 7%
79 Pfc. William J. Grabiarz School 19%
80 Highgate Heights 33%
81 School 81 8%
82 Early Childhood Center #82 2%
84 Erie County Health Care Ctr. for Children 6%
89 Dr. Lydia T. Wright School 11%
91 BUILD Academy 16%
93 Southside Elementary 5%
94 West Hertel Academy 14%
95 Waterfront Elementary School 18%
96 Campus West 15%
97 Harvey Austin School 13%
99 Stanley M. Makowski ECC 29%
131 Academy Program 3%
156 Frederick Law Olmsted (upper grades) 3%
192 Performing Arts 12%
195 City Honors School 8%
197 Math, Science and Technology Prep 23%
198 International Prep at Grover 31%
200 Bennett High School 16%
204 Lafayette High School 27%
205 Riverside Institute of Technology 19%
206 South Park High School 20%
212 Leonardo da Vinci High School 3%
301 Burgard High School 30%
302 Emerson School of Hospitality 4%
304 Hutch Tech 6%
305 McKinley High School 4%
307 East High School 19%

 

- Mary Pasciak

How much bang for its buck does your school district get?

How productive is your school district, given the amount it spends?

An interactive website at www.americanprogress.org/issues/2011/01/educational_productivity is trying to answer that question.

Locally, according to the data analysis driving the site, the districts that come out on top include Williamsville, Wilson, Frontier, Grand Island, West Seneca and Clarence.

School districts ROI Those at the bottom of the pile include many smaller districts in the larger eight-county Western New York area, including: Brocton, Bemus Point, Ripley, Panama and Dunkirk.

Among districts in Erie and Niagara counties that ranked lowest among districts in those two counties (although not as low as the outlying districts mentioned above): Sloan, Lackawanna, Buffalo and Niagara Falls.

The study looks at how well students in each district are achieving on standardized tests, compared to how much each district spends per student. It makes adjustments for the number of students getting free and reduced lunches, those who are not native English speakers, and those getting special education services -- with the understanding that students in those group generally cost more to educate.

Other variables, such as cost of living, are factored in to try to reach as fair a comparison as possible, the researchers say.

These sorts of comparisons are never perfect.

The group that put the study together, the liberal Center for American Progress, issued a disclaimer along with its findings.

"Please note that the individual district evaluations on the site should be interpreted with caution. The connection between spending and achievement is a complex one, and our data does not capture everything that goes into creating an efficient school system. We're also aware that some of the data reported by states and districts have reliability issues. Nevertheless, we believe that our calculations are the best available given existing research methods."

- Mary Pasciak

Thursday's grad requirements forum full, so share your thoughts online

The regional forum scheduled for Thursday about the state's high school graduation requirements is now full, according to the organizers at BOCES.

Steiner That means you won't have a chance to sit in the same room with Education Commissioner David Steiner to share your thoughts in person -- but it does not mean you've lost your chance to have your voice heard.

You can fill out this online survey: http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/LJTTZ6R. (You have until midnight Feb. 18 to submit the online survey.) The Board of Regents will be looking at all the information collected from the regional forums, as well as the online survey, as they deliberate in the coming months over how to tweak graduation requirements in New York State.

- Mary Pasciak

Tell NYS how it should change graduation requirements

New York State Education Commissioner David Steiner is headed to the Buffalo area this week -- and he wants to hear from you.

Specifically, he wants to hear what you think about how the state should change its high school graduation requirements.

Steiner and King You're invited to a forum at 5 p.m. Thursday at Erie 1 BOCES, 355 Harlem Road, West Seneca, to hear a brief presentation from Steiner and then break into small groups to tackle questions about what students should be required to do to get a diploma.

(The folks at BOCES ask that you call ahead to register with Denise Polanski at 716-821-7002, so they can have appropriate materials ready that evening.)

Update, as of Tuesday evening: All the available seats for the forum have been reserved. But you can still share your opinions through the online survey (details below).

Some questions to get you started thinking:

How many credits should be required for graduation?

Should students be able to use credits from a career and technical course to count toward their graduation requirements?

What should the passing grade be on Regents exams?

Should students be able to exercise some choice regarding which courses they take that count toward filling graduation requirements?

What allowances should be made for students with disabilities?

Thursday's session is the sixth of eight such regional forums across the state. Over the coming months, the Board of Regents will use the information it collects from these forums as it begins making decisions about how to revamp graduation requirements for high school students across the Empire State.

Can't make it to the forum? Take a few minutes to fill out this online survey: http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/LJTTZ6R. (You have until midnight Feb. 18 to submit the online survey.)

- Mary Pasciak

The sky isn't falling anymore

Remember when Buffalo Superintendent James A. Williams went on local TV news shows in October to threaten that more than 900 district employees could lose their jobs mid-year if the state did not reverse itself on increased payments to charter schools and payments for employee pensions?

James Williams To refresh your memory -- Barbara J. Smith, the district's CFO, then quickly set about trying to clarify that there was no way in the world the district could lay off 900 people in the middle of the year. The superintendent, she said, was just trying to illustrate what the functional equivalent was to a $22.8 million gap mid-year.

Then, in December, district conceded to the fact that the state did not seem likely to change its mind about payments to the charters, and Williams agreed to pay charters the higher amount, which he said would leave an $11.3 million hole in the district's budget and would require the district to submit a mid-year budget modification to the control board.

Well, it turns out no major catastrophe will befall the district -- even if neither the pension payments nor the charter payments are overturned in Albany. Smith told the board this week that even under those circumstances -- which officials had been predicting would leave a $22.8 million hole in the budget -- the district would end the year with a $10 million deficit.

"So in that worst case scenario, can we survive that hit without laying off?" Board President Ralph Hernandez asked.

"Yes," Smith said.

She said the district found money in its budget in various places (primarily: charter enrollment was lower than expected, meaning the district did not have to pay out as much in charter reimbursements, and the retirement incentive last summer saved more money than expected).

"We would just move the money from the lines that have the surpluses," Smith said. "We wouldn't have to increase the total budget."

- Mary Pasciak

Not for lack of trying

On Thursday, Theresa Harris-Tigg mustered only three votes from Board of Ed members for the East District seat, which went to retired administrator Rosalyn Taylor.

But it certainly wasn't for a lack of effort that Harris-Tigg lost.

Taylor and Tigg In the days prior to the board vote Thursday night, Harris-Tigg (wearing the black beret, congratulating Taylor, in the picture at left) was quick to point out that she was the only one of the five candidates vying for the East District seat this month who ran for that seat in May. She waged a low-budget but scrappy campaign back then against incumbent Vivian O. Evans. Evans outspent her more than 10 to 1, but Harris-Tigg still lost by only about 7 percent of the vote.

(During that spring campaign, Taylor joined a group of longtime district employees and others to support Evans at a fundraiser. Among the others who turned out to support Evans that day: board member Florence Johnson and her husband and son; Grassroots leader Maurice Garner; former interim superintendent Yvonne Hargrave; chief of staff Jim Kane; former general counsel Mike Looby; and former board member Jack Coyle.)

When Evans finally announced her resignation in December, Harris-Tigg was the first to throw her hat in the ring.

She was the first to submit letters of support to board members.

Behind-the-scenes efforts from Unity -- the anti-Grassroots East Side political group -- got some big guns like Common Council President Dave Franczyk and Councilman Rich Fontana, among others, putting in calls to some board members, trying to lobby support for Harris-Tigg.

And at the eleventh hour, on Wednesday night, East District resident Debra Clinkscales sent board members copies of a petition with about 100 residents' signatures, in support of Harris-Tigg.

But in the end, only three board members voted for her: Cahill, a personal friend of Harris-Tigg; Jason McCarthy; and Chris Jacobs, who spoke to the strengths of both candidates.

"I fall on the side of supporting Theresa Harris-Tigg for one determinant reason and that is because she ran for the seat," Jacobs said. "She put herself out as a candidate. She went door to door to talk to voters. I believe nothing puts one in touch with real pulse of the needs and desires of those you serve like campaigning."

- Mary Pasciak

Council member: State oversight of Board of Ed needed?

Common Council members were uncharacteristically vocal Wednesday at an Education Committee meeting about their concerns over the state of the Buffalo Public Schools.

One of them, Mickey Kearns, led the charge.

He was dismayed not only by the fact that only about half the kids in city schools graduate.

Mickey Kearns He was troubled by the inequity among the city's high schools, which leads to "an elitism out there," with parents looking to move out of the city if their children can't get into City Honors, Hutch Tech or another top public school.

And he simply could not believe how many special ed students are placed at certain high schools.

Across the district, an average of 18 percent of students are classified as special ed. But at South Park High School, 26 to 28 percent of students are special ed, according to Will Keresztes, associate superintendent.

"You're using that school as a dumping ground -- it's disgusting," Kearns said.

"It's completely unacceptable," Keresztes acknowledged, saying he is aware of the inequities and is working on the situation. "I will be taking steps to adequately provide for all the students."

Suffice it to say that Kearns did not seem to take much solace in Keresztes' words, nor did he seem to have much confidence that the district's current leadership would be able to pull off a major turnaround.

"Why do we have a board of education? Do we even need them any more?" Kearns asked. "Maybe we need to bring someone in for oversight. Maybe we need to bring in something like a control board for the Buffalo Public Schools. Without a great educational system, we're not going to have a great city. We failed our kids. We failed our city."

(See Brian Meyer's story for full coverage of Wednesday's meeting.)

- Mary Pasciak

Paladino's tough love elicits invitation from Board of Ed

Last week, Carl Paladino surfaced at a Buffalo Board of Education meeting to issue an ultimatum: either resign or fire the superintendent and embrace a host of other reforms -- in the next 30 days. If the board does neither, Paladino says he's going to rally public support to pressure the Common Council to withhold its funding to the schools next year.

Well, nobody on the board seems to be contemplating a resignation. And nobody's asked James Williams to pack his bags.

Carl Paladino But apparently Paladino's tough talk has rattled board president Ralph Hernandez enough to ask him to sit down with the board sometime in February and share more of his education reform ideas.

(When I talked to Paladino on Tuesday, he hadn't yet received Hernandez's invitation -- but once he heard about it, he said he would love to accept the offer.)

Hernandez won't say that Paladino's ultimatum had anything to do with the invitation, but I think anyone would be hard pressed to name even one other board critic who's received a personal invitation for more face time with the board.

For the record, Hernandez told me this isn't just a Paladino thing -- the board president says anyone with their own education reform ideas is welcome to sit down with the board to talk.

Let me know if your invite comes as quickly as Paladino's did.

- 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 | [email protected]


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 | [email protected]


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 | [email protected]


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 | [email protected]

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