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Why Buffalo schools lost up to $18 million

As you know, the state Education Department last week rejected Buffalo's turnaround plans for Lafayette High School, Bilingual Center School 33 and Dr. Charles Drew Science Magnet.

That means, among other things, that Buffalo loses out on federal grant funds -- to be exact, up to $6 million for 2011-12 for the three schools, and up to $12 million more over the next two years for them. (In addition, remember, the Board of Ed opted not to file any turnaround grant applications for four other schools for 2011-12: East High School, Buffalo Elementary School of Technology, Waterfront Elementary and Futures Academy.)

When I talked to Education Commissioner John King recently, he said he is giving the district until Jan. 1, 2012, to submit revised turnaround grant applications for all seven schools. 

King is clearly aggravated with Buffalo -- especially regarding Lafayette. This is the second year that Lafayette has been identified as persistently lowest-achieving -- and with no acceptable turnaround plan in place. After failing to submit a decent plan in 2010-11, the school got a $300,000 planning grant. Even after a year of planning, with that funding to help, the school still could not put together a strong plan, King said.

"The fact that there is no plan for Lafayette High School that we could approve is an indictment of all the adults involved, from the board, down," he said. "After having even had the benefit of a planning year, the inability to articulate a clear, approvable plan consistent with the law is embarrassing, frankly."

So what, exactly, did the state determine was wrong with the turnaround plans for Lafayette, Drew and the Bilingual Center?

You can read the commissioner's entire letter to the superintendent here.

And here's a recap of some of the main reasons for the denial, weaving in information from that letter as well as from conversations I had with King and Superintendent James Williams:

- "The proposed plans for the EPOs and the contracts were not consistent with the statute," King said.

The plans lacked a "clear set of performance metrics and terms that gave us the confidence they would be successfully implemented," he added.

Williams said one major issue was botched with those contracts the district submitted.

"The sample contract that was put together showed the relationship between the school and the district, not the EPO and the district," he said. "The contract should have been between the EPO and the district."

It's not clear why the district would have submitted a contract between one of its own schools and the district. Based on what both the commissioner and the superintendent said, it sounds as though there was a general lack of understanding on the district's part regarding what it needed to submit to the state.

- "It was not clear the district has the capacity to effectively support the EPO schools or provide effective oversight of the EPOs," King said. "Other districts have an office with the stability for managing the process, with clear performance metrics. If the partners aren't hitting them, there are intervention strategies. It was not clear that they had laid out for the EPOs what the responsibilities the EPOs would have, as opposed to the district.

"It seemed that the plans were not thoroughly thought through."

The superintendent told me the state felt the district was not "strategically ready" to implement the EPO plans and, as King said, had not built the capacity to do so. Williams, though, seemed to interpret that slightly differently than the commissioner did.

"[The state Education Department] felt that there were many questions coming from entities calling them -- i.e., the board calling them, parents calling them, union representation calling them," Williams said. "I guess you would also add that we had these stakeholder meetings hosted by the mayor. There were too many people interfering in the process, calling and asking questions at the state level. So they felt we had not built the capacity as a team to manage the EPOs."

The superintendent added: "The bottom line was that they felt we were not prepared to do the work, from the board on down. And how would the district hold the EPO and the school board accountable for the results of student achievement? I didn't understand that but they kept repeating it: We did not clarify how the district would hold the EPO and the school board accountable for the results of student achievement."

- "They also said we didn't have enough applicants, that our [EPO] pool was too small," Williams said.

There were five bidders each for Lafayette and the Bilingual Center, and six for Drew.

Williams said he would like to see the district consider converting the seven failing schools to charter schools, or revert to an earlier plan that involved moving the principals and half the teachers out of those schools.

"There's strong support in the community, from very important people [in the business community] that are willing to come to the table and help us convert these schools to charter schools," he said.

If Buffalo does not submit an adequate plan for Lafayette by Jan. 1, King said, he will ask the Board of Regents to revoke the school's registration, which would effectively close it.

"I am quite frustrated with where things stand," he said. "We have been very clear that we need plans we have confidence would change the performance of the school, and we still don't have that."

In previous interviews, King had said the state could revoke Lafayette's registration if it did not have changes in place by September. On Tuesday, he said doing so four weeks before the start of school would create too much chaos.

"It is clear the board still does not have the sense of urgency of changing the performance trajectory of the weakest schools in the district," he said.

Board President Lou Petrucci said he talked to state officials, and they told him the district's applications were "materially deficient."

"They said if we didn't get our house in order, they would lay dragons at our door," Petrucci said.

- 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 |

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 |