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The other candidates for interim superintendent

Amber Dixon has emerged as the Board of Ed's clear favorite to serve as interim superintendent once James Williams departs.

But over the past few weeks, Dixon is not the only person that various board members have mentioned as possible candidates.

Here are some of the others:

Erie 1 BOCES Superintendent Don Ogilvie has been touted by Regent Bob Bennett and several high-profile business leaders, including Carl Paladino, as either an interim superintendent for Buffalo or a long-term successor to Williams.

That may have backfired.

Some board members say they respect Ogilvie's experience and reputation, but do not want to appear to be bowing to outside pressure, so therefore, would not want to appoint him.

And some board members say they want a leader who has experience working directly in an urban district -- something Ogilvie does not have.

The other person outside the district whose name has surfaced is Yvonne Minor-Ragan, the longtime principal of Westminster Community Charter School. She retired from the school in June, and is now working with the Westminster Foundation and the Promise Neighborhood initiative.

Minor-Ragan, who was recruited years ago from Chicago, has a solid reputation for transforming Westminster from one of the worst schools in Buffalo to a school that consistently reports scores well above the district averages. She was known for running the school with a firm hand while still maintaining warm relations with students and their families and developing  a culture of respect.

While board members seem to think highly of her, it also seems that their thinking is that she likely would not be interested in running the district.

And in general, board members seem to want someone from inside the district who knows the players and the history.

Among the district's upper-level administrators (Williams' cabinet, in other words), Associate Superintendent Will Keresztes seems to be the only other person besides Dixon who got any serious consideration by board members. His 100 percent call back policy -- he returns all phone calls -- has won fans on the board, and many see him as a capable, no-nonsense administrator.

But some issues in Keresztes' past made some board members think twice.

In 2004, Keresztes was suspended for 30 days while he was a principal at School 80 because teachers there directed students to cheat on a state test. When the incident became public four years later, Keresztes said he was not aware of the cheating, nor did he initiate it, but that as principal, he took responsibility for what happened on his watch.

From the story that ran at the time: "He didn't do anything wrong," said Rita M. Eisenbeis, who conducted the investigation and is now retired. "He didn't actively take part in the cheating at School 80. Could he have been more vigilant? Maybe."

Then, in 2008, Keresztes was accused of pushing through changes in City Honors' grading system that benefited his daughter. Keresztes denied the charge. The district's ethics panel later cleared him of wrongdoing and found his daughter did not benefit.

The ethics panel added in its decision: "It is important to reiterate to all district personnel that great effort must be taken by all to avoid even the appearance of impropriety. Thus, the prudent course of action may be to [excuse] oneself from any matter that could potentially impact a family member, even if no material benefit could result."

More recently, in May, the state Education Department ruled that the district was denying appropriate special education services to many students -- an area that falls under Keresztes' watch. That has left some board members leery of his leadership.

While the choices for interim superintendent were slim among central office staff, two building principals got some consideration from board members. Bill Kresse, the City Honors principal (who, incidentally, was the person who accused Keresztes of meddling with the school's grading practices three years ago) and David Mauricio, the Bennett High School principal, are both well regarded and seen as up and coming administrators.

A major drawback for both, though, is their lack of central office experience. While each is certified to work as a district administrator, neither one ever has.

It's not unheard of in local districts for someone to leap from serving as a principal to superintendent. Two examples from the relatively recent past: Paul Hashem in Lackawanna and Jim Brotz in West Seneca.

But each of those districts pale in size when compared to Buffalo. The bigger of the two, West Seneca, has only about one-fifth as many students as Buffalo.

In Buffalo, appointing someone like Kresse or Mauricio would mean taking a leap from running a building with a few hundred students, to running a district with 35,000.

- Mary Pasciak

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

Review live chat with Board of Ed member John Licata

John Licata is the only sitting board member who voted against extending Superintendent James Williams' contract last year. Licata is also the board member responsible for filing the resolution that set in motion termination proceedings against Williams this week.

Check out the transcript of our live chat with Licata:

- Mary Pasciak

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

Board approves revised buyout for deputy superintendent

While the Board of Education is midway through proceedings to terminate Superintendent James Williams' contract, it did approve the resignation of the No. 2 administrator in the district.

The board voted Tuesday to accept Folasade Oladele's resignation.


The board in June voted, 5-3, to accept her resignation. The vote not only accepted her resignation, but also extended a severance package that amounted to $215,000.

That deal encountered some questions once it came time for the city's control board to approve it, seeing as her contract entitles her to just three months' pay, or $42,000. So while the agreement was signed by Oladele and the superintendent, it never took effect.

Since then, Oladele has remained on the payroll, but has been out of the district for the most part, taking vacation days.

In recent weeks, the district has been negotiating a revised settlement with her.

On Tuesday, the board approved the new package, which one board member said amounted to $49,900 -- $100 under the magic number. Any payouts the district makes over $50,000 have to be approved by the control board.

Chris Jacobs and Jason McCarthy voted against accepting Oladele's resignation. Ralph Hernandez abstained, saying he was not part of the executive session process involving discussions about her resignation.

Board President Lou Petrucci would not disclose a copy of the settlement, saying that both sides had seven days to consider the agreement. Once that period is over, he said, the agreement could be released.

- Mary Pasciak

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

Live coverage from Board of Ed meeting on Williams' future

News Education Reporter Mary B. Pasciak kept a running blog from today's Buffalo Board of Education meeting in which the board voted to begin termination proceedings against Superintendent James A. Williams. Review clips from the meeting below as well.

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News education reporter talks Buffalo schools on Capitol Pressroom

I joined Albany Times Union education reporter Scott Waldman on the Capitol Pressroom today.

Host Susan Arbetter had us cover quite a bit of ground in half an hour: the future of Buffalo Superintendent James Williams; the English and math test scores that were released this week; charter school vs. traditional public school performance on those tests; the property tax cap; teacher evaluations; and what the coming school year may bring.

Listen to a podcast of the show at

- Mary Pasciak

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

Statewide database: How well did your school do in math and English?

Find out how your school did on the English language arts and math tests given in May 2011. All traditional public and charter schools are included in the database, based on data released by the State Education Department.

Hold down the Control key (PC) or Shift (Mac) for multiple selections. Click here to do a new search.

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

New buyout for deputy superintendent under wraps

When the Board of Ed meets tomorrow afternoon, it will consider a revised buyout package for Deputy Superintendent Folasade Oladele.

The previous settlement -- a year's pay and benefits, or about $215,000 -- didn't fly, as you might recall. Although the board approved the settlement on a 5-3 vote, community opposition was strong, as her contract entitled her to three month's pay, or $42,000.

So while Oladele used up some accumulated vacation time in July, the district got busy renegotiating with her. The word is that the new package involves three months' pay and benefits, as well as a payout for unused benefit time.

But Board President Lou Petrucci will not disclose the terms of the settlement.

Not yet, anyway.

He says that according to the terms of the separation agreement with Oladele, the board cannot release the terms until after it is approved.

In other words, the public will have no way to know for sure what the board is voting on until after it's a done deal.

Bob Freeman, executive director of the state's Committee on Open Government, says despite the confidentiality clause in the separation agreement, the board could disclose the terms of the buyout if it chose to.

"Clearly, if the board wants to disclose this proposed agreement, it may do so," he said.

"This clause in my opinion has no legal weight. A promise of confidentiality doesn't mean a thing," he said. "The only time a promise of confidentiality must be honored is a situation in which a statute forbids disclosure. There's no obligation to disclose, but there's nothing in law that would prohibit disclosure."

- Mary Pasciak

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

Beaver Hollow retreat gives vendors access to administrators

Buffalo school administrators are wrapping up their sixth annual retreat at the Beaver Hollow Conference Center today.

Beaver Hollow In light of the 250 pink slips that went out to teachers, teacher aides and teacher assistants in the past few days, a growing number of administrators are questioning whether the district should be spending so much money on the retreat. 

Every administrator in the district is given the option of staying overnight for the three-day event. With rooms costing more than $200 a night, and about 100 people (half of those who attend) opting to stay overnight, the pricetag runs in the neighborhood of $100,000.

Superintendent James Williams notes that the event is paid for by corporate sponsors -- in other words, vendors who do business with the Buffalo Public Schools -- so taxpayers are not footing the bill.

What do vendors get in exchange for their donations of up to $15,000?

Well, they get to stay overnight in a room in a villa at Beaver Hollow.

Vendor room They get to set up a table in the designated vendor room during the conference, where administrators can talk to vendors and see their latest wares.

And they get to talk one-on-one with Williams and other administrators about what Buffalo wants in its classrooms.

Barry Bonessi, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s district manager for New York state, has attended the retreat for the past four years. His company is one of the largest textbook publishers in the United States.

He sees the retreat as a chance to talk with principals and curriculum directors, he said.

“Basically, it gives us a better understanding of the needs of the children of the City of Buffalo,” he said.

His company can then develop products that better meet those needs, he said. For example, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt learned at previous retreats that the Buffalo schools use interactive Promethean smartboards in classrooms.

“We see that trend, and we need to get Promethean technology that is compatible with our materials,” he said.

District spokeswoman Elena Cala said everyone benefits from the arrangement.

"It's a good symbiotic relationship," she said. "The vendors find out what we need through these retreats, and then they go back and make it. They create what we need, and then we're more likely to purchase it from them."

- Mary Pasciak

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

Addition by subtraction

It's been three months since the Buffalo Board of Ed decided to adopt a turnaround model for seven failing schools that involves hiring outside groups to run those schools. (The board ended up in July deciding not to hire outside groups this year for four of those schools.)

Ever since the board's initial decision in May, there's been much discussion regarding what these educational partnership organizations actually are supposed to do, and how they are supposed to function. Since this is all new in New York State, there's quite a bit of deciphering to do.

Countless times in the past three months, I've heard everyone from state officials to the superintendent to board members say that the EPO is supposed to take the place of the superintendent, as it relates to the particular school that the EPO is in charge of. In other words, the EPO is supposed to report directly to the board, so the superintendent will be responsible for fewer schools.

Plenty of people were surprised when word spread that Superintendent James Williams wanted to add an administrator to central office to oversee the EPOs, seeing as the EPOs are supposed to be directly reporting to the board, not the district's administration.

Board President Lou Petrucci said the new administrator would eventually take on more responsibilities, as more low-performing schools are identified and potentially taken out from under the superintendent's responsibilities.

"This person is going to act as the liaison between the board and the EPOs," Petrucci said. "It will also be the person who coordinates any support the EPOs need in City Hall."

The new administrative position has not yet been posted.

In the meantime, other changes pertaining to the EPOs have already been made.

For the past few months, Amber Dixon, executive director of accountability, and Debbie Buckley, who runs the district's grants department, have been the point people for all things EPO-related. They have been charged with getting up to speed on the rules governing EPOs, which seem to be constantly evolving, as this is an entirely new model in education in New York State.

In recent days, the superintendent pulled Dixon and Buckley off those EPO duties and instead put Debra Sykes and Anne Botticelli, both associate superintendents, in charge of the EPOs.

That is not sitting well with some board members.

"It's clear the EPOs and the board want Debbie Buckley and Amber Dixon," said Mary Ruth Kapsiak, vice president for student achievement. "So how does [Williams] get to make that call? How can you take somebody who's been to all the meetings and knows all the integral parts off a piece that's so integral to the district?"

- Mary Pasciak

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

Niagara U. ranks high for sending students on to grad school

U.S. News & World Report came out with a list today ranking colleges across the country, based on the percentage of their recent graduates who went on to graduate school:

Of the 1,756 undergraduate programs surveyed by U.S. News, 627 reported the percentage of their 2009 graduating class that had gone on to pursue a graduate degree within a year of graduation. Among those schools, an average of 25.5 percent of students opted to attend graduate school within a year of receiving their diplomas. A handful institutions, however, are well above that average.

Of that pool of colleges who responded to the survey, Niagara University ranked #4 nationally, reporting that 76 percent of its grads went on for further study. Four other colleges in the Empire State also made the Top 10.

Here's the entire Top 10 list:

Yeshiva University (NYS), 89%

SUNY College Old Westbury (NYS), 78%

Vaughn College of Aeronautics and Technology (NYS), 78%

Niagara University (NYS), 76%

Hawaii Pacific University, 75%

SUNY College of Technology, Delhi (NYS), 75%

Waldorf College (Iowa), 75%

South Carolina State University, 70%

Southern Connecticut State University, 70%

Missouri Western State University, 66%


- 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 |