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Appointments to follow heated board meeting

Tensions were certainly running high last week in Room 801 of City Hall.

The Board of Education met in a special session to decide whether to appoint a review panel to evaluate proposals from outside groups interested in running seven low-performing schools. (Here's a link to the live blog of the entire meeting.)

By way of background: When the board voted to adopt this particular turnaround model for the schools, which requires hiring outside groups, the board effectively took those seven schools out of the control of the superintendent.

At one point during the meeting, board member John Licata made it clear he wanted to see copies of all the proposals, which had been received in the district two days earlier. Superintendent James Williams said the proposals were "under lock and key in Purchasing" until he got direction from the board on what to do with the proposals.

At that point, board President Ralph Hernandez weighed in, and things got a bit heated between him and the superintendent.

Here's how things went:

Hernandez: When the board made the determination it would be the EPO model it would use, that responsibility fell on the board. Not Dr. Williams. Not the administration. I think this is a golden opportunity for us to bring the stakeholders from the city to the table to figure out where to go with this process. The administration and Dr. Williams should not be 15 blocks ahead of this whole process.

Williams: Folks, you may have every application. I don't want to be a part of it. We are waiting to get directions from you all. You may have them tomorrow, the next day. You may respond to the [State Education Department's] questions -- if you know how.

But to get the full sense of the emotions in the room, listen to it yourself:

About half an hour later, Florence Johnson was looking for some clarification on certain aspects of what the board was voting on. It didn't take long things got tense between her and Hernandez.

Johnson: I can't vote on this until I have clarity.

Hernandez: That's fine. You can say no.

Johnson: Would you do me a favor? Just close your mouth.  

Hernandez: I don't disrespect you like that.

Johnson: Just close your mouth. Everything somebody says, you have a comment.

Hernandez: Do I? Do I?

Listen for yourself:

Well, at the end of the day, nobody threw any punches.

And the board voted, 5-2 (Johnson and Rosalyn Taylor voted no), to appoint a six-member review panel, and to hire a consultant to evaluate the proposals. (Looks like Learning Points Associates is going to get the contract. No word yet on how much it's going to cost.)

The board gets to appoint two members of the local review panel; the Common Council president appoints one; the teachers union appoints one; the administrators union appoints one; and the District Parent Coordinating Council appoints one.

At this point, I have heard who two of them will be. Teachers union president Phil Rumore has decided to sit on the review panel himself, and administrators union president Crystal Barton also plans to sit on the panel.

Tune in Wednesday evening for our live blog of the meeting, which starts at 4 p.m., to find out who the rest of the appointees are.

- Mary Pasciak

What did not happen this week

Back in April, Senior Deputy Education Commissioner John King offered to come back to Buffalo, gather the key stakeholders in a room, lock the door, and not let anyone out until all parties agreed on turnaround plans for Buffalo's nine persistently lowest-achieving schools.

He cleared June 2 -- Thursday -- on his calendar to come back to Buffalo to do that.

It seemed that just about everybody involved thought King's plan was a good idea. (You might recall that King has said the state will have a hard time approving plans -- and handing out the $54 million that rides on them -- unless those plans have buy-in from the stakeholders, which was what that meeting was designed to solidify.)

But, as you've probably figured out by now, Thursday came and went, and King did not set foot in Buffalo.

Why?

Well, Mayor Brown, after sitting on the idea for a few weeks, eventually took the lead in organizing such a meeting. Brown lined up a national facilitator, Noel Tichy, to run the meeting.

The problem? Tichy was available on June 10 and 16; King was available on June 2. The mayor had to choose between the deputy commissioner -- who will become commissioner in mid-June -- and the facilitator. Brown picked the facilitator.

King was already set to come to Buffalo on June 2, and for a day or so after the June 10 meeting was solidified, King was still planning to come to town. But then it didn't take long for those who were trying to set up the June 2 meeting to decide that they did not want to risk upstaging the mayor's June 10 meeting.

So I'm not sure how King spent his day on Thursday, but I can tell you it did not involve a trip down the Thruway.

In the meantime, the stakeholders have already met with Tichy, via videoconference, to get through initial introductions and such. The mayor apparently is asking stakeholders what they think the goals of the June 10 meeting should be, and what the possible obstacles are.

While everyone from Phil Rumore to Sam Radford has agreed to attend the meeting, the level of enthusiasm has certainly taken a hit since it became known that John King would not be in the room. King is the guy who will have the final word on whether Buffalo's turnaround plans will be approved, so several people have told me they thought it was essential that he be in the meeting.

Now that he won't be, and now that it seems the goal of the June 10 meeting might be recast, several participants are worried that the focus is going to shift from getting agreement on the turnaround plans to something more general, like trying to forge better relationships among the players.

The last I heard, everyone who was invited still planned to attend the June 10 meeting, but a few of the invited guests had taken to referring to it derisively as the "Kumbaya meeting" -- as in, as one stakeholder told me: "I certainly hope they don't expect us to walk out of that room holding hands and singing Kumbaya."

- Mary Pasciak

Live blog of special Board of Ed meeting

Board President Ralph Hernandez has called a special meeting for 4 p.m. today for the board to consider his resolution to appoint a five-member panel to review proposals from outside groups who want to take over seven of the low-performing schools.

The board might also vote today to appoint someone to the Ferry District seat.

- Mary Pasciak

What the board won't tell us -- and the gift to Williams that will keep on giving

Wednesday evening, moments after Superintendent James Williams announced he will retire in a year, board member Chris Jacobs handed me a copy of the board's evaluation of Williams.

What he handed me was a one-page summary. You can check it out yourself: here's the link to it.

Strangely, this was the very thing Jacobs had promised me -- twice in the past week or two -- that he would not hand out.

Why?

Because I had called Bob Freeman, who's in charge of the state's Committee on Open Government, to ask exactly which parts of the evaluation the public is entitled to get. And he told me that the public is entitled to something far more detailed than anything the district has ever released before.

Here's how the superintendent's evaluation works: Each board member gets to rate the superintendent on 55 separate items, each on a scale of 1 to 5. You can check it out yourself. Download a copy of the full list of items the superintendent is evaluated on.

Freeman says the public should be able to get copies of the averaged score for each of those 55 items.

"Opinions expressed in numeric data are public," Freeman said.

That's what I told to Jacobs -- twice. And both times, Jacobs assured me that, as the board member who oversaw the evaluation process, he would make sure the district released the full extent of what the public is entitled to.

You see, in past years, all the district released was a one-page summary, listing six categories and the superintendent's score for each category.

But Jacobs assured me that this year, the public would get the full evaluation.

So imagine my surprise when, on Wednesday evening, Jacobs handed me a one-page summary.

When I pointed out that he had promised the full, itemized evalution results, he told me: "I misunderstood what you were asking for."

Hmm.

It seems that maybe the public would want to know the superintendent's average score on, say, "Provides leadership, inspiring others to attain the highest of professional standards" versus "Is customarily suitably well groomed" (which are both actual items on the evaluation).

I've already filed a Freedom of Information Law request for a copy of the superintendent's evaluation. We'll see whether the district's legal team is able to comply with state law any better than Jacobs did.

(For the record: I have FOILed for that in other local districts before, and have been provided with a full breakdown of the superintendent's evaluation. Off the top of my head, one district that has provided me with such a detailed document is Ken-Ton, back when Steve Achramovitch was about to move along to Greece.)

So you know what wasn't given out Wednesday night.

Now it's time to find out what was given out.

Because Williams will stay in Buffalo through June 2012, taxpayers will underwrite 70 percent of the cost of his health insurance premiums -- for the rest of his life.

Per his contract, once he stayed in Buffalo for five years, he was entitled to having taxpayers underwrite 50 percent of the cost of his post-retirement health insurance.

For every year he stayed in Buffalo past the initial five, the district covers an additional 10 percent of his post-retirement health premiums.

So now that he's staying through June 2012, that means he will spend seven years in Buffalo, which equals 70 percent of his health premiums, for life.

Not a bad deal for the guy who frequently complains about how retiree health costs are strangling the district.

- Mary Pasciak

Live blog of Board of Ed committee meetings

Join us at 4 p.m. today, when the Board of Education begins its evening of committee meetings. Among the highlights that are expected: the possible release of the board's evaluation of Superintendent James Williams and a report on student attendance.

Why all the secrets?

When the Board of Ed videoconferenced Tuesday with State Ed regarding the school turnaround plans that Buffalo district officials submitted, state officials didn't take too kindly to the fact that there were reporters in the room. Superintendent James Williams on Friday had invited me to sit in on the meeting, and two TV reporters had showed up for the powwow, too.

It was really something to see the lengths that the board had to go to in order to keep that meeting closed to the public.

You see, any time a quorum of the board gathers to discuss district business, the meeting has to be open to the public. When board President Ralph Hernandez announced that the media would have to leave, I pointed out that there were five board members in the room (out of nine seats on the board, making that a quorum), so therefore, the meeting could not legally be closed.

At that point, board members Rosalyn Taylor and Florence Johnson volunteered to leave the boardroom, therefore lowering the number of board members in the room and making it possible for the meeting to proceed legally behind closed doors.

After less than an hour, board member John Licata had to leave the meeting. When he left, Taylor went in. Later, when Hernandez left, Johnson went in. And so on. The end result: At any given point, there were not more than four board members in the meeting.

Board members grumbled that it was ridiculous they should have to do that. And the bottom line is, most board members did not get to sit through the entire videoconference, specifically because they had to play musical chairs to avoid breaking the law. So most board members walked out of City Hall on Tuesday lacking an understanding of the full conversation with State Ed.

Keep in mind that the board voted to adopt a turnaround model for seven schools in which an outside group comes in and basically takes the place of the superintendent for those schools. The board retains its authority over them, though.

So the board bears responsibility for those seven schools, but very few board members got to participate in the full two-hour discussion with State Ed regarding the plans for those schools. Does that seem like a good setup?

Hmm...

Well, let's take a step back here.

Is it standard for such sessions to be open to the media? No.

Is there any legal reason such sessions couldn't be open to the media? No. There's nothing in state law that expressly prohibits officials from opening such sessions to the public.

After the closed-door videoconference ended on Tuesday, I talked to several people who had participated in it. The consensus was that there was basically s a lot of back and forth regarding how this turnaround model is going to play out. In other words, had I been allowed to sit in on it, the public would have ended up with a much better understanding of the details on how this is all supposed to unfold.

But closing the doors on Tuesday's session was just one in a string of events that has kept the public less informed than it could be.

Both State Ed and the district refuse to release the litany of questions State Ed provided to the district regarding its turnaround plans.

The superintendent refuses to release the list of entities that submitted proposals to take over the low-performing schools.

And all to what end?

If there's nothing wrong with the way the process is unfolding, then why should either the district or State Ed go out of its way to keep things out of the public eye?

Since I started live blogging the Board of Ed meetings and committee meetings, thousands of people join me every week for a blow by blow of what's going on in Room 801 of City Hall. Not only are people interested in what's going on in the Buffalo Public Schools, but they're willing to commit the time to follow along at a very granular level.

So the interest is definitely there.

The first step toward having an engaged citizenry is having an informed citizenry.

So why not provide people with more information, rather than less?

- 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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