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Why it matters where the white kids are

(For those coming late to the discussion, take a minute to read the recent post, "Unsaid in school debate: Where the white kids are.")

Why should anyone care how white Discovery School is?

Or care how the debate goes between Mickey Kearns and the Buffalo Board of Ed over the future of South Park High School?

Because this is just a small piece of a huge issue that's likely to loom over the entire district.

There's growing interest in returning the Buffalo Public Schools to a neighborhood schools model. The whole district, that is. Not just South Buffalo.

Just a few supporters of the plan for neighborhood schools across the city:

James Williams3 Superintendent James Williams says a return to neighborhood schools would save the district millions in busing costs.

Busing costs the district around $50 million a year, with the state picking up about three-fourths of that amount.

Jason McCarthy Jason McCarthy -- the relatively new North District Board of Ed member who lately seems to be finding his voice on the board -- says there is no single issue more important to the future of the district than returning to neighborhood schools.

And Sam Radford, the very vocal vice president of the District Parent Coordinating Council, has multiple reasons for supporting neighborhood schools.

The school choice program that's been in place nearly a decade just isn't working, Radford says.

"School choice is a joke," he said. "It's not even real."

Here's his take on it: In theory, kids can go to any school in the city they want. But in reality, they can only go to a school that has an opening. And the only schools with openings are the ones nobody else wants to go to.

Besides that, Radford says, the move away from neighborhood schools has had an unintended consequence.

Radford "Not only did the situation get worse, but the neighborhood has been totally deconstructed," he said.

Like many Buffalo residents (and former residents) of a certain age, he remembers walking to school as a kid every day, walking home for lunch and then back to school, and heading back to school again later in the day for various activities.

Schools used to be an anchor in the neighborhoods, he says. Not any more.

He points to School 74 in the Hamlin Park neighborhood. He says there are more than 1,400 children of school age eligible to attend that school. Only 70 of them do. Instead, those kids get on buses and attend schools in other parts of the city -- and kids from other parts of the city ride buses to come to School 74.

Add to all this the reality that many Buffalo parents have to rely on public transportation, Radford says. So when their kids go to school across town, that makes it all the harder for the parents to attend parent-teacher conferences, get involved in the PTO, pick up their kids when they're sick, or do any number of other things that help keep a school strong.

So you have plenty of arguments on behalf of a return to neighborhood schools.

And then there's the reality that Buffalo is one of the most segregated cities in the United States.

If we go back to neighborhood schools, those schools will, by definition, reflect the city's neighborhoods -- which are, by and large, separated by race.

Florence Johnson, the most veteran Board of Ed member in the city, pointed out recently that Judge Curtin desegregated Buffalo's schools to ensure that kids wouldn't spend their childhoods surrounded by kids who look just like them -- so the kids would not grow up with the prejudices so many adults have, she said.

So here's the $64,000 question: How do you return to neighborhood schools without reverting to segregated schools?

- Mary Pasciak

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

Live chat with Niagara Falls School Board's Johnny Destino at 11 a.m. Friday

Unsaid in school debate: Where the white kids are

What's the whitest public school in Buffalo?

Discovery School 67.

(No, it's not the start of a bad joke.)

Discovery School In a school district where 22 percent of the students are white, the South Buffalo elementary school's enrollment includes 84 percent whites.

And that has a lot to do with why Wednesday night's Board of Education meeting got so heated when Councilman Mickey Kearns said he wants to see South Park High School become either a school that requires students to test into -- or a high school that serves students from Discovery School.

But before we get to Kearns, first, a little history.

Nearly a decade ago, when the district adopted its school choice program, schools were basically lumped into one of two categories: "criteria" schools (think City Honors, Hutch Tech, Olmsted and the like) that require students to score high enough on a test or otherwise prove themselves; and all the other schools, which were open to any student who wanted to go there.

Discovery fell into the "other" category.

But unlike the dozens of other schools in that category, Discovery reserves half its seats for students living in its attendance zone. In other words, somewhere along the way, someone made sure Discovery would remain a school for South Buffalo.

(Only one other elementary school in the district reserves a set number of seats for students in its defined neighborhood. That would be Olmsted School 64, where 65 percent of the kids test into the gifted program and the remaining 35 percent are drawn from the neighborhood. White students there: 59 percent of the total.)

Now back to Mickey Kearns at the Board of Ed meeting.

Mickey Kearns South Buffalo parents, Kearns said, are happy with their public school choices for elementary school. But once their kids get closer to high school, they start thinking about moving.

The high school in that part of the city, South Park, is on the list of persistently lowest-achieving schools. (South Park, for the record, is the second-whitest public high school in Buffalo; 52 percent of its students are white. The whitest high school is City Honors, at 67 percent.)

The other Buffalo high schools on the state's watch list include Bennett, Burgard, Lafayette and Riverside.

Like the other four, South Park has one of the highest special education rates and one of the worst graduation rates in the city. Kearns recently referred to it as "a dumping ground."

"We need a new model (for South Park), whether it's a criteria-based model or a single stream from Discovery School," Kearns told the Board of Education. "We need to capture these kids. If we capture the kids, we're going to capture the families. We need kids to be in the neighborhood. Many of the students are very happy with the primary level of education. What is very bewildering is that we are not getting much support at that secondary level."

Two board members, Florence Johnson and Mary Ruth Kapsiak, wondered what the larger implications would be of making South Park a high school for South Buffalo.

Florence Johnson "I sat with Judge Curtin as president of this board and we talked about having a diversified city and moving toward diversified schools," Johnson said. "So if we make one community that has most of the majority of children in the majority race, what is going to happen to a (School) 74 and a 53 and a 17? If their parents want to go to these schools, will they be excluded because we're going to a neighborhood concept?

"I want you to look at this not from a myopic view, but from how can we help all of the children in Buffalo."

Kapsiak offered three questions for Kearns to ponder.

"What impact is this going to have -- I live on East Side of Buffalo, if I have a grandchild that wants to attend South Park High School?" she said. "Question 2: You need change in South Buffalo. What about the rest of the city? Question 3: You're talking about the (bottom five) high schools. You're addressing one. What about the others?"

- Mary Pasciak

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

Postcard from Denver

Today's story looks at local impressions of last week's labor-management conference, which touted the merits of collaboration between unions and district leadership.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan invited 150 districts, including three from Erie County, to attend the conference in Denver. One of the districts, Ken-Ton, sent along this picture:

Arne Duncan with KenTon officials

(From left to right: Ken-Ton Superintendent Mark P. Mondanaro; Ken-Ton School Board President Bob Dana; U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan; and Peter Stuhlmiller, vice president of the Kenmore Teachers Association.)

Still waiting for the comparable photo from the Buffalo folks who attended the conference...

- Mary Pasciak

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

ELA, math scores for grades 3-8 by school

The seachable database below includes English language arts and math scores from 2010 for grades 3 through 8 for all private and public schools in the eight counties of Western New York.

Multiple selections to make comparisons can be made by holding down the Control key (Windows users) or Shift key (Mac).

(To do a new search, click here.)


Online Database by Caspio
Click here to load this Caspio Online Database.


--Mary Pasciak

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

How did your school do on Regents exams?

The State Education Department this week released school report cards for 2009-10.

This huge data release includes results from Regents exams for schools in the eight counties of Western New York.

Without further ado, here is a searchable database with those results. To select multiple districts, schools or subjects, hold down the Control key while making your selections. On a Mac, hold down the Shift key.

(To do a new search, click here.)

Online Database by Caspio
Click here to load this Caspio Online Database.


--Mary Pasciak

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

Regents exams: Cancel some or make schools pay?

While school districts across the state grapple with their own gloomy financial forecasts, the State Education Department's own situation isn't looking too rosy, either.

Tom Precious reported that during budget hearings in Albany this week, the State Education Department's fiscal outlook is so bad that the state might have to cancel Regents exams, according to Education Commissioner David Steiner.

Steiner "Steiner said a $15 million account to fund the Regents exams is facing elimination. Cuomo's proposed budget includes no money for the program, Steiner said, and federal funding that did cover the exams has run out," Precious reported.

There's talk of scaling back to just two Regents exams: math and English.

A few months ago, the state floated the idea of charging school districts $6 for each Regents exam taken by each student. Talk of that proposal is still circulating and riling local school officials.

In fact, it tops the list of mandate relief proposals put forward by the Conference of Big Five School Districts (representing Buffalo and the other four biggest urban districts in the state): "Ensure that no new state assessment-related expenses are passed on to districts already struggling with difficult administration, scanning and scoring mandates that have already placed an unfunded fiscal burden on them."

- Mary Pasciak

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

How much does your district have in reserve?

During state budget hearings in Albany on Tuesday, Lt. Gov. Robert Duffy echoed the same theme we've been hearing from the governor: the schools should be able to absorb the proposed state aid cuts without feeling the pinch.

Among other things, Duffy again pointed to the millions that school districts have in reserve funds. By the most recent estimates available, from the end of the last fiscal year in June, that totals $1.5 billion statewide.

By law, a district can have up to 4 percent of its total budget set aside in undesignated fund balance -- what many people refer to as the "rainy day fund." (The state cap used to be 2 percent, but that's been increased in the past few years.) The money is there to cover costs that might arise unexpectedly.

The governor's office says it's time for school districts to tap into those reserves to cover budget shortfalls. School officials say that's not what the reserves are for -- and add that if they use up the reserves this year, they'll have nothing left next year, when that property tax cap is expected to take effect.

Cuomo's office has released a list detailing how much each suburban district had in reserve, as of June 30. Keep in mind that a district may have spent down its reserves since then.

Erie County:

Undesignated fund balance (in millions) As % of budget
Akron $1.08 3.7%
Alden $1.25 4.0%
Amherst $2.01 4.5%
Cheektowaga $0.93 2.3%
Cheektowaga-Maryvale $1.41 4.0%
Cheektowaga-Sloan $0.00 0.0%
Clarence $2.80 3.9%
Cleveland Hill $1.50 5.3%
Depew $1.50 4.0%
East Aurora $1.10 3.9%
Eden $1.04 4.0%
Frontier $2.92 4.0%
Grand Island $2.07 4.0%
Hamburg $0.70 1.3%
Holland $0.73 4.0%
Iroquois $1.64 4.0%
Kenmore-Tonawanda $5.87 4.0%
Lackawanna $1.40 3.2%
Lake Shore $2.06 4.0%
Lancaster $2.54 3.0%
North Collins $0.60 4.0%
Orchard Park $3.20 4.0%
Springville-Griffith $1.55 4.5%
Sweet Home $2.62 4.0%
Tonawanda $1.00 3.3%
West Seneca $1.49 1.4%
Williamsville $6.19 3.9%

Niagara County:

Undesignated fund balance (in millions) As % of budget
Barker $0.80 4.0%
Lewiston-Porter $1.60 4.0%
Lockport $2.07 2.7%
Newfane $1.30 4.0%
Niagara Falls $3.00 2.4%
Niagara-Wheatfield $2.70 3.9%
North Tonawanda $2.47 4.0%
Royalton-Hartland $0.89 4.0%
Starpoint $1.76 4.0%
Wilson $0.95 4.0%


- Mary Pasciak

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

School boards survey: Concessions better than layoffs

The New York State School Boards Association polled its members across the state to ask whether school board members would prefer layoffs or union concessions.

The survey says: Concessions.

Eighty-nine percent of the 663 board members who responded to the online survey said they favored reopening contracts, according to a press release issued by NYSSBA.

"More specifically, 76 percent of school board members believe their district should request to re-open existing collective bargaining agreements in order to freeze employee wages. Another 72 percent said the district should request to re-open contracts to seek health insurance concessions," according to the press release.

- Mary Pasciak

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

What you don't know about the property tax cap

For all the talk about the property tax cap that seems headed our way, something has been kind of lost in the hubbub.

The details.

Chief among them is the fact that the proposed tax cap would not go into effect until the 2012-13 school year. That gives school districts one more year to play under the old rules (as long as your voters approve a budget, it's fair game).

Some of the other details worth noting (taken from the bill approved by the Senate in late January):

- A district's tax levy increase would be capped at 2 percent or the annual increase in the consumer price index, whichever is less.

- There is a way for schools to exceed the cap. If a district proposes a budget that exceeds the tax cap, the district would need 60 percent approval of the budget, rather than the standard 50 percent.

- If a budget fails to get voter approval, the district would have to submit a revised budget subject to a public vote on the third Tuesday in June. If this revised budget exceeds the tax cap, it would require approval by 60 percent of those voting.

- If the revised budget fails to get voter approval, the district would have to adopt a budget with no tax levy increase.

The tax cap, passed by the Senate and supported by the governor, still requires Assembly approval.

- Mary Pasciak

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

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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 |