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Changes propel parent trigger forward

Parents who went to Albany on Wednesday to lobby for the parent trigger bill came back optimistic.

They agreed to changes in the bill that they believe might give it a fighting chance to be approved before the Legislature concludes this session and heads home for the summer.

(A quick refresher: Parent trigger is a law already in place in California that says that if signatures are collected from a majority of parents at a failing school, those parents can force a federal turnaround model at that school. Possibilities include conversion to a charter school, replacing the principal and half the staff, closing the school, or a less drastic option known as "transformation."

Now back to Albany, where Mark Grisanti is sponsoring the bill in the Senate and Crystal Peoples-Stokes is sponsoring in the Assembly.)

After parents met with legislators on Wednesday, they agreed to three changes:

- A successful petition will need 55 percent of the parents to sign, as opposed to 51 percent.

- Closing the school will no longer be one of the options parents can force.

- The bill applies only to Buffalo. (It had originally been a statewide bill.)

"We're very optimistic," said Sam Radford, vice president of the District Parent Coordinating Council, and one of many parents who lobbied in Albany.

Parents were able to talk one-on-one with legislators throughout the day and share their personal stories -- something that supporters of the bill say was effective.

"We left there with a lot more confidence than we went with," said Hannya Boulos, executive director of Buffalo ReformED, which has been working with parents to get the bill passed. "Parents being able to give a face to what's going on in Buffalo was definitely a deciding factor."

Efforts to get parent trigger passed for Buffalo have made national news.

TIME magazine picked up the story, framing it as "game-changing legislation" in a "revolution" to reform local schools. And the Huffington Post picked up on both the TIME story and this week's Buffalo News story.

In the meantime, here at home, the Board of Education is raising questions about who paid for the lobbying trip.

Lou Petrucci, chair of the board's finance committee -- who, like many board members, is not exactly thrilled with the thought of parent trigger -- asked Wednesday whether the District Parent Coordinating Council used its federal Title I funds for the trip.

"If they paid their own freight, that's great. But if we paid their freight, I want to know where it's coming from," Petrucci said.

Boulos said Buffalo ReformED covered the cost of the trip, and said it was not an official DPCC trip. Some of the parents who went, she said, are not affiliated with the group.

"In my opinion, the school board is trying to scare the parents because they can't come up with an argument against parent trigger," Boulos said.

Albany update:

Our Albany reporter, Tom Precious, sent this update from the Legislature around 2:30 p.m. Thursday:

Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan, a Queens Democrat who chairs the Assembly education committee,  said she did not embrace the measures by Peoples-Stokes. "She's a colleague who I have a lot of respect for. We'll certainly give it a serious look,'' Nolan said.

Nolan met on Wednesday for an hour with a group of parents from Buffalo.

"They certainly made a serious case for more parental involvement. I certainly would have to review, though, whether this approach is the best approach to do that,'' she said.

With the 2011 legislative session winding down in the coming days, the lawmaker said the clock is working against action this year. "It's a very big proposal, so it's going to take some review and there may not be time right now,'' she said.

Albany update, Part 2: 

I just talked to Crystal Peoples-Stokes, who said: "It looks like it's taken a good step forward. I'm not sure if it's going to be a step big enough to get it out of the education committee before the end of session. But I think it took a giant step yesterday."

She said she plans to ask Nolan to schedule public hearings on the parent trigger bill, as early as this summer, to help dispel misunderstandings about what it entails.

- Mary Pasciak

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

Live blog: Board meeting to reconsider deputy superintendent's buyout

Join us for a live blog of the Board of Ed meeting at 4 p.m. today. Among the items on the agenda: revisiting the full year's pay and benefits that the board voted last week to give Deputy Superintendent Folasade Oladele, who is resigning.

- Mary Pasciak

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

Racial divide grows wider in Buffalo's graduation rates

There's been a whole lot of talk lately about Buffalo's 25 percent four-year graduation rate for black males, as reported by the Schott Foundation.

That's the number that's probably most often cited by parents and others in the community as they outline the urgent need for school reforms.

It's also a number that you will not find anywhere in the data released by the State Education Department this week. While the state does break down graduation rates by race, it does not break down the data by gender groups within racial groups.

There's a whole process the Schott Foundation uses to calculate that black male graduation rate, and it's not simple. That's why they come out with such a study only once every two years.

At any rate, if you take the time to dig through all the graduation data the state has released over the past few years, what you find is that it's possible to do only a limited comparison of graduation rates across racial groups.

I could find only three years of racial breakdown of the data.

Two years ago, 50 percent of black students in Buffalo graduated in four years, compared to 60 percent of white students.

The most recent data -- for the Class of 2010 -- shows that 45 percent of black students in Buffalo graduated in four years, compared to 58 percent of white students.

Here's what the more complete breakdown looks like for the Buffalo Public Schools:

    2008   2009   2010
Am. Indian   51%   60%   n/a
Asian   68%   n/a   48%
Black   50%   51%   45%
Hispanic   40%   43%   40%
White   60%   60%   58%


- Mary Pasciak

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

What's your school's graduation rate?

The state today released four-year graduation rates for 2009-10, including Regents diplomas and local diplomas.

How did your school fare? (To do a new search, click here.)

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

The data reflects the percentage of students in a given school who entered ninth grade in fall 2006 and graduated by June 2010. This includes students who received Regents diplomas, as well as students who received local diplomas.

Students who took longer than four years to graduate are not included in the numbers. Nor are special education students who received an IEP diploma.

- Mary Pasciak

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

Parents pushing for a seat at the table with some juice

The District Parent Coordinating Council, as you probably know, organized the one-day boycott of the Buffalo Public Schools last month.

That left a pretty bad taste in the mouths of district officials and Board of Education members.

Despite that, though, the board somehow managed to get past it and agreed to give the DPCC a seat on the review panel that's evaluating the proposals from outside groups who want to run seven of Buffalo's failing schools. (DPCC President Co-Leen Webb decided to represent the parents herself on that panel.)

And then the mayor also gave the DPCC a seat -- actually, four seats -- at the table for last week's education summit at M&T Center.

All of that, says DPCC vice president Sam Radford, is huge. It is historic. The parents have never before been included in that way.

And that sort of thing, he will tell you, is exactly what the parent group was looking for when it called for the boycott: a place at the table.

Now, the DPCC is looking not just for a place at the table, but a place at the table with some juice to go with it. Because right now, there's nothing compelling the district to listen to the parents' input.

Parents would like to see the State Legislature pass what's known as the "parent trigger" bill. As today's story explains, that would give parents the right to force a school turnaround at any low-performing school where they collect the signatures of a majority of parents. (Here's a paper from Buffalo ReformED that explains how parent trigger would work.)

A NYSUT spokesman said the teachers union opposes it because, as commendable as parent participation is, parents should get involved before a school is declared low-achieving, not after. And he worries that it could open the door to outside groups pouring all kinds of money into lobbying the parents.

Translation: Pro-charter groups will do all they can to convince parents to push to convert district schools into charter schools.

Supporters of the parent trigger bill, including Radford and Buffalo ReformED's Katie Campos, say the real value of it lies not the likelihood that many actual turnarounds will be forced, but in the mere threat of such turnarounds.

Translation: We don't want to turn all these schools into charters, or force any other turnaround models, for that matter. We just want the parents to be taken seriously.

Buffalo ReformED and the parents are hoping to get the bill pushed through during this session of the Legislature -- something that even they acknowledge is a long shot, given that there are only a few days remaining in the session.

In the meantime, though, one thing is clear: The Board of Ed is definitely not thrilled with the whole thing.

When DPCC secretary Kim Walek updated the board last week about the parent trigger bill, board member Lou Petrucci was quick to jump in with questions. Here's a snippet:

Petrucci: Are you saying there's political advocacy at these meetings now?

Walek: California's parent trigger law has been looked at by parents.

Petrucci: Looked at?

Walek: We're letting parents know there's information out there.

(Side note: Buffalo ReformED and the DPCC say lobbying for the parent trigger law is no different from lobbying legislators for more money in the budget, which is something the district administration regularly asks them to do.)

Board President Ralph Hernandez said that if the DPCC decides to lobby on behalf of the bill, the group needs to report that to the board through the student support committee, which Florence Johnson chairs.

"I haven't had an opportunity to read (the bill)," Johnson said. "We only have one more meeting this month, and then we have a meeting in July. I can't promise we can fit all this in. We have other concerns that are state mandates. But I will do and facilitate as much as I can."

The student support committee meets this week. We'll find out Wednesday whether parent trigger is on the agenda.

- Mary Pasciak

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

Who was on the mayor's guest list?

Wondering exactly who attended the education summit on Friday at M&T Center?

Here's the full list:

- Sally Bachofer, assistant state education commissioner

- Bob Bennett, regent

- Crystal Boling-Barton, president of the administrators union

- Dan Boscarino, vice president of M&T

- Mark Czarnecki, president of M&T

- Jon Dandes, president of Rich Baseball Operations

- Patricia Elliott, member of District Parent Coordinating Council

- Robert Gioia, president of Oishei Foundation

- Lloyd Hargrave, longtime parent activist

- Ralph Hernandez, Board of Education president

- Chris Jacobs, Board of Education vice president for executive affairs

- Mary Ruth Kapsiak, Board of Education vice president for student achievement

- Don Ogilvie, superintendent of Erie 1 BOCES

- Sam Radford, vice president of District Parent Coordinating Council

- Phil Rumore, president of the teachers union

- Tom Vitale, treasurer of administrators union

- Kim Walek, secretary of District Parent Coordinating Council

- James Williams, superintendent

- Mary Pasciak

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

Who will be the next exempt employee in City Hall?

With the deputy superintendent's resignation pending and more central office resignations on the way in the next few weeks, there's heavy speculation in City Hall regarding one particular exempt position: the associate superintendent for human resources.

Valerie DeBerry stepped down a few weeks ago as executive director of human resources, you might recall. In that position, she was making $110,000 a year.

Well, when the resulting vacancy was posted, it was posted slightly differently, as an associate superintendent position. Several people have suggested to me that that change in title will also bring an upward change in the related salary.

That remains to be seen. In the posting, the salary was listed merely as "negotiable."

But the existing associate superintendents each make about $133,000.

What we do know for sure is that the top job in human resources is open, and that's one position that the superintendent plans to fill. Countless people, including several in City Hall, have made a point of noting to me what rough shape the h.r. department is in. And that's a much more polite way to describe it than what I've heard from most people.

At any rate, everybody's waiting to see who will land that new associate superintendent gig. Seeing as a number of issues won't be resolved until someone's tapped to lead that department, the superintendent told me he expects to name someone to the h.r. job by July 1.

Stay tuned.

- Mary Pasciak

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

More resignations to follow deputy superintendent's

Anybody who's been following recent developments in the Buffalo Public Schools should not be surprised to hear that Deputy Superintendent Folasade Oladele resigned on Wednesday.

We know she's been looking for another job.

We know the Buffalo Board of Ed hasn't exactly been thrilled with her lately.

And we know some people on the board have been pushing for a pruning of the exempt staff.

So her departure does not exactly come as a shock. The board's decision to hand her $168,000 and a year's benefits, though, comes as something of a surprise, given that her contract entitles her to a buyout of only one-fourth that amount and no benefits.

Keep in mind that Oladele is getting exactly what she would have gotten had she continued working in Buffalo through the end of her contract, which would have expired in June 2012: a full year's pay, plus benefits. Only this way, she gets the pay and benefits without having to work here for the next year.

(Board member Chris Jacobs, who was one of three who voted against accepting Oladele's resignation because of the package the board gave her, noted that what the board got in exchange for that money was a mutual agreement not to file any lawsuits. Hmm.)

But the upper-level personnel changes are not going to end with Oladele.

Rumors have been circulating around City Hall for awhile that a few other exempt employees would soon be out of a job.

Apparently, there's good reason those rumors have been circulating.

They're true.

On Wednesday, the superintendent told me that he expects to announce more resignations of exempt employees -- he would not say how many -- by the end of the month.

Williams insists Oladele's resignation was not forced.

“It’s not unusual, when a superintendent is leaving, for senior staff members to look at other options,” he said.

Well, that may be true in some cases.

But Williams himself announced his retirement only last week. Add to that the fact that for much of the past week, Oladele was in Kentucky, where she delivered a high school graduation speech back in her hometown.

And what you get is quite an interesting set of circumstances.

Which seem likely to be just the first such set of circumstances that we'll see unfolding in the next few weeks.

- Mary Pasciak

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

Live blog of Board of Ed meeting: Ferry District appointment and more

Join me at 4 p.m. today when I live blog the Board of Education meeting.

On today's agenda: appointing someone to the Ferry District seat; appointing the six members to the EPO review panel; and officially re-creating a school at what is now Grabiarz.


- 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 the East District

Today's story looks at some of the behind-the-scenes shenanigans underlying the eight-person competition to fill the Ferry District seat on the Board of Education.

Before the board votes tonight on that appointment, it would be worthwhile to review a short history lesson.

It's been only five months since the last time the board had to appoint someone to a vacancy.

Vivian Evans spent the last third of 2010 representing her East District constituents from Maryland, where she had moved at the end of July. When she finally resigned in December, the board needed to go about filling that seat.

Let's take a minute or two to revisit how that went down.

Apparently, past practice in Buffalo had been for the board to interview candidates behind closed doors and select a candidate behind closed doors.

Remember when board President Ralph Hernandez mentioned that he planned to conduct the interviews in public? Here was the exchange he had during a public meeting this winter with Chief of Staff Jim Kane, regarding the interviews for that East District seat:

“You’re going to do the interviews in public?” Kane asked.

“Sure,” Hernandez responded.

“That would be a first,” Kane said. "We've never done that before in this district."

Well, it was a first. To everybody's credit, the board did, in fact, conduct those interviews in public.

(And while we're at it, let's give some more credit where it's due. Back in January, when I asked for the list of East District candidates' names a few days before the application deadline, Kane initially turned me down. This time around, with the Ferry District candidates, he has been entirely forthcoming when I've asked for information.)

So the good news is that, regarding releasing candidate information and conducting candidate interviews, the board is in full compliance with state laws. And that's progress here in Buffalo.

What's also worth pointing out is that when I talked in January to Bob Freeman, executive director of the state's Committee on Open Government, here's what he said:

Bob Freeman, executive director of the state's Committee on Open Government, says that the interviews should, in fact, be conducted in open session. The important point is that the board is filling a vacancy for elective office, Freeman says. Normally, these people would conduct public campaigns, spread their message to residents, and the voters would decide who gets to sit at the board table.

"If you choose to run for office, you throw your hat in the ring, with spotlights on it," he said.

There is exactly one legal case in New York State that directly relates to the situation at hand -- a board deliberating over who should fill a vacancy -- and the judge ruled that those deliberations needed to be done in public. Here's a portion of the judge's ruling (which was upheld on appeal):

"...respondents' reliance on the portion of Section 105(1)(f) which states that a Board in executive session may discuss the 'appointment...of a particular person...' is misplaced. In this Court's opinion, given the liberality with which the law's requirements of openness are to be interpreted (Holden v. Board of Trustees of Cornell Univ., 80 AD2d 378) and given the obvious importance of protecting the voter's franchise this section should be interpreted as applying only to employees of the municipality and not to appointments to fill the unexpired terms of elected officials. Certainly, the matter of replacing elected officials, should be subject to public input and scrutiny" (Gordon v. Village of Monticello, Supreme Court, Sullivan County, January 7, 1994), modified on other grounds, 207 AD 2d 55 (1994)].

Freeman says that ruling applies to the board's discussion of the candidates as well as the interviews themselves.

Let's repeat that one. The ruling applies to the board's discussion of the candidates. Meaning those discussions should be conducted in open session.

Back in January, while the board did conduct its interviews in public, it did not conduct its deliberations in public.

Tonight, the board is expected to appoint someone to the Ferry District seat.

Let's see whether the board will continue to repeat the past -- or continue to make strides toward open government.

- 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 |