The corps of City Hall administrators has begun to shrink, but not through Amber Dixon's doing.
Erin Comerford, who served as executive administrator to James Williams, has submitted her resignation, effective next Friday.
She was one of two exempts -- along with district spokeswoman Elena Cala -- who accompanied Williams to nearly every event, whether it was a ribbon-cutting or a board meeting.
Some of you may remember her as one of the staffers (along with Cala) who scolded me and videographer Joseph Popiolkowski in June for having the nerve to come into a public office and seek a comment from the superintendent, after we had been shut out of two sessions he held with the press. Comerford and Cala made sure we left the office, and then called security to be extra safe.
Comerford is shown in the picture above ushering us out of the office. And in this video, here she is, making it clear that she thinks the district's media relations office is no place for the media:
Comerford's comments toward the end of the video refer to a story that ran in April indicating that she and several other exempt employees did not meet the minimum qualifications posted for their positions in the district.
Well, it seems Comerford has now taken a job with the College Board.
She wasted no time switching her employer as it's listed on her Facebook page, although she's still employed by the district until next Friday.
I'm told, though, that she hasn't been in City Hall this week, as she's called in sick.
Dixon tells me she does not plan to fill Comerford's position, which carried a $71,500 salary.
Interim Superintendent Amber Dixon made it official last night: Fran Wilson will be her chief academic officer.
Wilson, who is currently a community superintendent, will have a contract "layered over" her existing contract, Board President Lou Petrucci said.
"So in case a new superintendent comes in and wants to put someone else in, they have that option," he said.
Wilson will be making $150,000, he said -- $18,000 a year less than former Deputy Superintendent Folasade Oladele, and about $29,000 more than Wilson makes as community superintendent. Will Wilson's position be filled?
"We're restructuring our exempt positions and central office staff," Petrucci said. "Different contracts will be expiring in the next few months. Some will not be renewed. Other new positions will be created."
As I've mentioned before, critics note that Wilson has little experience as a teacher -- she worked for 10 years in the district as an elementary school counselor. The only teaching experience listed on her resume is as a summer school teacher at School 68.
She has served as assistant principal at Southside Elementary (including a few months in there as acting principal), principal at Hamlin Park School 74, and principal at Makowski.
Dixon dismisses criticism of Wilson.
"Fran Wilson brings to the position a background of turning around a low-performing school, School 74. She's academically strong. She understands student achievement. And she's a strong leader," Dixon said. "Her interests are those of the students of the district. She has great respect for students, teachers and principals in this district. Her hard work speaks for itself."
"She did teach a course at the Leadership Academy. It's true," Dixon said. "But it's a new day in the Buffalo schools. "If there's a feeling that [Wilson's appointment] is part of the old guard, people should trust that the board of education only has interest in moving forward."
It seems there's a good chance that Amber Dixon will appoint a chief academic officer this week, if she can rally enough votes on the board to support her choice. According to the timeline she gave me most recently, it seemed she wanted to have someone in place right around now. The deadline for applications was over a month ago.
And the most likely candidate still seems most likely to be Fran Wilson, as noted here before. Lately, it seems that everywhere Dixon goes, Wilson's nearby -- whether that involves staying til the bitter end of a board meeting or sitting through presentations at a gathering of the Big Five.
Although Wilson is technically still a community superintendent -- one of three reporting to lead community superintendent Mark Frazier -- she keeps popping up more and more as Dixon's right hand. And we seem to be hearing and seeing less of Frazier.
It seems wherever I go lately, people are speculating on the future of Frazier as well as a bunch of other exempts. Many people seem to be thinking that when some of their contracts expire, Dixon will simply opt not to renew them.
Well, there's a glitch in this thinking. Although Dixon has said repeatedly that she plans to thin the ranks of the exempts, I don't think she's going to wait for their contracts to expire to make that happen.
Here's why: Most of them have at least several months left on their contract, and some have more than a year left. And Dixon has said we will see a smaller exempt staff by January 2012, which is only two months away.
I thought it would make sense to provide the end dates of the exempt contracts, to put to rest the rumors that are circulating that some of these contracts are about to expire.
According to the best information I have, none of the exempt contracts expire for about another two months. Two people in human resources, Eileen Fleming and Marta Clark, had their contracts expire this summer. I know both of their contracts were extended for a few months. I asked Fleming a few weeks ago for clarification on the dates. She referred the question to district spokeswoman Elena Cala, and I never did get a definite answer. As far as I know, the contracts for Fleming and Clark expire sometime around the end of the calendar year.
After that, the next contract to expire is that of Cala, whose contract is up in March 2012.
Beyond that, several exempt contracts expire in June 2012: Barb Smith, CFO; Frazier; and Erin Comerford, executive administrator.
Here's when the rest of the exempt contracts expire, through the end of 2013:
July 2012: Gary Wilson, assistant legal counsel.
August 2012: Aubrey Lloyd, executive director of athletics, and Fran Wilson, community superintendent.
September 2012: Anne Botticelli and Debra Sykes, associate superintendents; and Cassandra Harrington, community superintendent.
October 2012: Craig Koeppel, director of purchasing; Peggy Boorady, community superintendent; and Jim Kane, chief of staff.
December 2012: Kelly Gale Eisenried, executive director of labor relations.
June 2013: Will Keresztes, associate superintendent.
December 2013: Joe Giusiana, chief operations officer.
Also: The contracts for Geoff Pritchard, the finance controller, and Dan Marmion, the chief technology officer, expired this summer. Both were renewed, but I don't have exact end dates for their current contracts.
So now that you see the end dates on all the contracts, it leads us to ponder the next question: How and when will Dixon reduce the exempt staff?
She has two options, essentially.
She could terminate those she wants to see gone. That would cost three months pay per exempt, as the severance clause in the contracts stipulates.
Or she could show them the writing on the wall and suggest they find other positions. That would presumably save face for them, and also save taxpayers some money.
Seventy percent of the kids in the Buffalo Public Schools get free lunch because their family income is low enough to qualify (making not much more than $24,000 a year for a family of three, for instance) -- and their families fill out the forms and turn them in.
Another 7 percent get reduced lunch. (Those with a family income no higher than about $34,000 for a family of three.)
But what about other kids who might qualify for free lunch, but may be too embarrassed to get it?
That's what School Board Member Ralph Hernandez is wondering. He says over the years, cafeteria workers in the schools have told him that too many kids are not eating.
"We have children out there, for whatever reason, they're not getting any lunches," he said.
Buffalo's median household income, he points out, is just over $27,000.
The board recently approved a resolution from Hernandez directing the superintendent to conduct a feasibility study by Nov. 16 to look at implementing a universal free meals program in the district.
Over a five-year period, he says, the district posted an average surplus of $700,000 a year in the foodservice program. He wants to know whether that surplus would be enough to provide free lunch to every student, every day.
Right now, Buffalo board members say it makes sense to find a way to feed all students.
"I know there are students who don't feel comfortable and don't bring the information back we've requested. However, these students are hungry. They are not going to go into a cafeteria with other students and say here's my card, I need lunch," said Mary Ruth Kapsiak. "But if everyone's on the same page getting a lunch, our students will learn better. You can't learn on an empty stomach."
With the Buffalo Public Schools under the gun to get turnaround plans in by Jan. 1 for seven failing schools, the district is -- again -- asking outside groups to submit proposals.
While the deadline for those proposals isn't until next week, each group that plans to submit a proposal had to file an initial notice with the district late last week.
Fourteen groups -- eight local and six out of town -- have filed an initial notice.
Before I do the big reveal, let's do a quick recap of how this went down last time around, so as to better understand what's happening this time.
In June, 12 groups submitted proposals to run anywhere from one to seven of Buffalo's failing schools. The district asked for proposals only from educational partnership organizations -- not from charter management organizations. (State officials said the district needed to get sign-off from the teachers union on the turnaround plans. The union opposed plans to move teachers. So the School Board opted to go with hiring an EPO to run each school -- the only turnaround model that Rumore backed.)
Once the proposals came in from prospective EPOs, the School Board ended up deciding not to submit turnaround plans for four of the schools -- Buffalo Elementary School of Technology, East High School, Futures Academy and Waterfront Elementary.
The board approved plans to have Buffalo State College run Lafayette High School; the Buffalo Museum of Science run Dr. Charles Drew Science Magnet School 59; and First Hand Learning run Bilingual Center School 33.
Since then, the state has told district officials they must submit new turnaround plans for all seven schools by Jan. 1 -- and they must use a variety of models, not all EPOs. So this time around, the district asked for proposals from EPOs as well as charter management organizations.
Here's a quick rundown on who has filed an initial intent to apply. Keep in mind that this does not necessarily mean all of these groups will end up submitting full proposals. Once the actual proposals are submitted, I'll be giving you a lot more info on each one.
At this juncture, the outside groups were not required to indicate whether they would be filing as EPOs or CMOs, although some did make that clear.
The groups are:
- Buffalo State College was selected this summer by the board to run Lafayette as an EPO, but the state rejected the plan. Buff State has again indicated its intent to submit a proposal for Lafayette.
- Gateway-Longviewsubmitted an EPO proposal this summer to run Futures Academy, which the School Board rejected. It's not clear which school or schools Gateway-Longview is interested in this time around.
- First Hand Learning submitted a proposal as an EPO this summer to run Bilingual Center School 33, and was selected by the board. That plan, though, was among those not approved by the state. First Hand Learning plans to submit another plan for the same school.
- West Buffalo Charter School plans to submit a proposal for one school, but it's not clear which school. This group got approval from the state to open in September 2010, but has not been able to find a physical location to operate out of.
- Chameleon Community Schools Project, a local group affiliated with attorney Steven Polowitz, has indicated interest in closing one to three of the schools and reopening them as charters, but it's not clear which schools. Polowitz had had conversations with James Williams in the months before Williams stepped down as superintendent, and he indicated to Polowitz that he thought the time was right for conversion charters. Those conversations, though, seemed to happen largely without the knowledge or sign-off on the School Board.
- PLC Associatesis based in Pittsford, just outside Rochester. It's not clear which school or schools they're interested in.
- Community Action Organization of Erie County submitted proposals this summer for Futures Academy and East High School. The board did not accept either of them. CAO has signaled its intent to submit proposals for the same schools this time.
- Canisius College has jumped into the fray this time around. The first time around, when the district asked for proposals this summer, plenty of board members and others in the district were disappointed that only one local college or university submitted a proposal. This time around, Canisius has joined Buffalo State in its interest. Canisius is interested in one school, but it's not clear which one.
- Prosperity 716 lists a mailing address of 652 Main St. in East Aurora, which also happens to be the mailing address of the Greater East Aurora Chamber of Commerce. This group has expressed interest in Lafayette.
- Frazier Academy Design Team, a group from Chicago, has expressed interest in BEST, Futures and Waterfront. Frazier uses the same mailing address as Frazier Preparatory Academy, a charter school in Chicago.
- The Research to Practice Group is a Long Island group that includes several high-profile names, such as Manny Rivera, the former Rochester superintendent; Rudy Crew, the former Miami-Dade County superintendent; and McGraw-Hill Education. This summer, Research to Practice submitted EPO proposals to run all seven failing schools. It's not clear how many schools they're interested in this time around.
- ASCD (once known as the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development), out of Alexandria, Va., is a membership organization that provides various conferences and other events and publications related to education. It's not clear which schools, or how many, ASCD is interested in.
Everybody seems to agree that more parental involvement would go a long way toward improving outcomes in the Buffalo Public Schools.
But how to make that happen?
Well, Interim Superintendent Amber Dixon has signed off on a plan floated by the District Parent Coordinating Council that both the administration and the parent group seems to hope will be a step in the right direction.
The group has proposed calling a Parent Assembly -- a meeting with one parent representative from every classroom in the district, to be held a couple of times this year to disseminate key information to parents.
Principals have been asked to identify a specific parent rep for each classroom in their building.
"We want to have a mechanism where we can inform parents collectively about how we're moving forward to achieve the academic goals of the district," said Sam Radford, DPCC vice president. "Our role is to use Parent Assembly as a way to have a classroom parent every year whose responsibility is to disseminate information to all the parents in their room. We will put an infrastructure in place that gets parents engaged as a group."
One benefit, he said, is that creation of the Parent Assembly should help address some concerns that the DPCC is not representative of all parents in the district.
The first Parent Assembly is scheduled to convene on Dec. 8, with a second session eyed for April or May.
If every classroom rep shows up, that would be more than 1,200 parents in one place at one time, getting the same information from the district to bring back to their classrooms.
Radford said the hope is that the Parent Assembly will meet four times next year.
"We've got to stop complaining. It's our responsibility to make sure our kids are getting a quality education," he said. "If they're not, we've got to stop blaming people and roll up our sleeves."
Sam Radford and Phil Rumore went head to head this week, shouting at each other over -- well, over Buffalo's failing schools, more or less.
I could only touch on their confrontation briefly in this week's story, given that I had a bunch of other ground to cover, too.
But I want to give you a whole lot more. Because this confrontation kind of distills the simmering tension between the Buffalo Teachers Federation and the District Parent Coordinating Council -- which in itself is important for various reasons, not the least of which is that the district has less than two months to bring them and everyone else together to hash out turnaround plans for seven schools.
The exchange between Rumore and Radford took place at a DPCC meeting. The parent group had invited Rumore, Amber Dixon and some board members to talk about the turnaround plans.
This part of the meeting lasted well over an hour. I'm giving you about eight and half minutes of audio that captures a bit of the discussion leading up to the shouting, as well as a bit afterward.
The district has until Jan. 1 to submit plans for seven failing schools. Earlier in the meeting, Rumore reiterated his opposition to a turnaround model that involves moving half the teachers out of a school, saying it is not educationally sound.
He also said that the only model he does support is one that brings in an educational partnership organization to run the school.
The state has said Buffalo must use a variety of federal turnaround models for the schools, or else the district will lose out on $14 million for those seven schools. (That's maximum funding for one year; the schools are eligible for up to three years of funding.) In May, the BTF opposed all but the EPO turnaround model. The Board of Education went with that model, and the district ended up not getting any funding for 20111-12 for those schools.
Now, into our excerpt of the conversation. To give you some context: Radford is citing an article in the most recent issue of the BTF newsletter, in which Rumore says Secretary of Education Arne Duncan canceled plans to visit Buffalo in September because the BTF planned to stage a protest.
Here's the audio, followed by a transcript (as well as I could manage) of the exchange:
Radford: Whether we get Race to the Top money or not, the teachers union already got a contract, y’all jobs are secure, and the status quo will be maintained whether we get resources or not. So you have a winning hand already. Teachers are already winning as it relates to jobs security, y’all have a contract.
There’s no reason really for you to negotiate at all. Because the schools are failing, they’ve been failing, our kids are failing. Your teachers are going to maintain job security whether they do or not.
The position the president took was we want to take 5 percent of the worst schools. Not all the schools, just 5 percent of the worst schools in the country, and we want to turn them around. They put together a plan called Race to the Top.
You said, according to this, Duncan’s cancellation was due to a BTF plan to stage a protest of the visit because (Rumore) believes he is not education-friendly or a friend to education. He asked the NEA representative assembly to issue a no confidence vote in the US Department of Education and the Race to the Top program Duncan supports. The resolution was approved by the 9,000 members of the representative assembly.
It sounds like even before we sit down and hear what the parents at the school think, the teachers at the school think, even before we hear what the board members think, before we know what the administration has, it sounds like the BTF has made its mind up that you don’t agree with Race to the Top, you don’t like the education secretary and consequently you are going to protest him.
You aren’t going to support anything that they do. So at the end of the day, anything that we bring as parents to say how do we turn around these failing schools… Y’all position is you’re against it, you’re gonna protest it.
Rumore: First of all, our issue, if you read the whole article, has to do with treating our students as test scores. It’s in the article. The issue we raise is treating our students as test scores.
We were prepared to have young kids walk around with signs that said, “I am not a test score.” Because our kids are not a test score, a standardized test score. Arne Duncan single-handedly is the one who has been foisting this thing about test scores, we’re gonna measure students by a test score. That is why we took that position, if you read the article.
Second of all, I take great offense on behalf of the teachers to think that the only thing we care about is a contract. If you think for one second our teachers don’t care about the kids, you’re damn wrong. And I resent that. You insult the teachers, you insult me.
Radford: You can get emotional and walk away, but at the end of the day, we respect all teachers. What we don’t respect is fact that teachers who are failing our students continue to get job security and you continue back them up and you then walk away from the negotiating table. And you continue to benefit as the Buffalo Teachers Federation president and the Buffalo Teachers Federation as an organization and our children still fail.
If our children fail, we want them to get some kind of a consequence for that. Because right now, what is the consequence besides a failing student, what is the consequence for a teacher?
Rumore: The consequence to the teachers is very simple. Teachers don’t like to see kids fail. That is why the teachers went on strike to get art, music and physical education in the primary grades. That is why we have class sizes in our contract.
Radford: So why are the kids still failing then?
Rumore: I’m not done yet. Stop interrupting me. I’m not done.
That’s why our contract speaks a lot. What our contract has to do with the issue that we’re discussing here is beyond me. The point is we are opposed to the wholesale movement of teachers throughout this district from non-performing schools to performing schools because it won’t in any way help education.
Radford: And you’re willing to allow us to have another year of failing schools. This year we had $14 million we were eligible for. That according to you, you disagreed with. The Buffalo Teachers Federation disagreed with that. And based on your disagreement, our school district did not submit an application. And when they did not submit an application, every one of those schools lost the opportunity to get those resources.
And we cannot get that year back. And so now, just like you’re offended, we’re offended.
We can raise our voice like you can raise your voice. But here’s the point. We don’t want to raise our voice. What we want to do, we want to do like this, Phil.
I want to demonstrate for you that we can all holler, but after we all holler, your teachers have a contract. Our kids are still failing. What we would prefer to do is sit down at the table and not fall for the trick you just tried to pull on us. Because the trick you just tried to pull on us is get offended and walk away and leave the status quo the same. What we’re trying to do is say no. We don’t want you offended. We invited you to the table to talk. Because we want to keep negotiating until we change the status quo.
At the end of the day, if you all want to teach in empty buildings, that’s a right you have. Think about how it’s gonna be when there are gonna be empty classrooms because the teachers won’t be negotiable for our children. We want everybody at the table as a fair broker. And right now you’re saying you’ll only support one… Did anyone hear something different?
You’re only going to support one plan, EPO. Is that right? So you’re not being a fair broker. If the EPO works, great. You should care enough about our kids to open up the BTF to other options. And that’s all we’re asking for tonight – being open to other options.
(Rumore saying something that can’t be heard clearly.)
Radford: Well, you’re the one that got offended, Phil. I didn’t get offended. You got offended and said you’d walk away.
You thought we were so slow we didn’t understand that that’s a tactic you consistently use. “You offended me.” We’re not here to offend you. We’re all adults. We’re all reasonable adults.
We’re here to negotiate on behalf of our children. We don’t have a contract. We don’t have a lawyer. We don’t have the army of people you march down to lobby to get your way. We don’t have that. So what we’ve got to do is mobilize as parents so we can fight for our children.
So hopefully, hopefully, what you said is true. You’re willing to negotiate. If that works out, wonderful. Because we are looking for an agreement. But what we’re not willing to do is what y’all did last year. That includes you, that includes the Board of Education. We walked away from resources that could have turned around three schools – seven schools. Y’all promised we could do it in January. Now January is here.
So if we get to January and y’all tell us, we couldn’t come up with an application, sorry – we’re not going for that. So hopefully we’ll come up with something.
Thank you again. Let’s have a hand for Phil Rumore.
The city's rapidly growing student population of recent immigrants and refugees — now numbering more than 3,000 — has historically been "largely invisible" in Buffalo schools, the report contends.
"The school system didn't seem to notice they were here, didn't think to modify an otherwise successful program to ensure that these newcomers could succeed, and didn't create an effective system to reach out to those communities," states the Council of Great City Schools report, which was commissioned by the board.
For months, an advisory group has been meeting to craft a plan to improve education for these students. Join me tonight to find out what they've come up with.
Even Phil Rumore's harshest critics generally tend to agree with his most loyal supporters on one point: He does a good job representing the interests of the teachers. His supporters will note that he doesn't get paid to represent the students' interests.
But is there any overlap between the teachers' interests and the students' interests?
I asked Rumore recently what contract proposals BTF has on the table that would help improve student achievement. (The union's contract -- available here -- you might remember, expired seven and a half years ago.)
- Class size maximums would be reduced. For example, the maximum number of students in kindergarten would decrease to 25, from 30. Fourth to sixth grade: 25, down from 32. Maximum student load for a high school English teacher would drop to 125, from 135.
- In determining class size, students "whose reading or math scores are one or two years below grade level will be counted as two and those whose scores are three or more years below grade level will be counted as three." In other words, if you have 15 kids who are all at least a year behind in reading, that would count as a class of 30.
- Contract language would be strengthened to prohibit secondary teachers from having more than two lesson preparations. (In other words, no teacher would have to teach more than two different courses. For example, a math teacher who teaches algebra and calculus has two lesson preps.) The current language says "every effort shall be made" to limit a teacher's preps to two.
- Students in pre-k through third grade would have five periods a week of art, music and phys ed. Currently, students in kindergarten through third grade are supposed to have one period a week in art; one in music; and one in phys ed. (Students in fourth through sixth grade currently are supposed to already be getting five periods a week of art, music and phys ed.)
- All classes in pre-k through third grade would get five 30-minute classes of foreign language instruction a week. Classes in grades four through eight would get five 45-minute classes a week.
- The district would allocate $10 per student for "the incidental purchase of instructional supplies and materials," then increased by $5 per year. Under the current contract, the district sets aside $5 per student for such purchases.
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.
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.
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.
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.