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Transparency in the Buffalo schools: one step forward, one step back

There's no question that the Buffalo Public Schools have reversed course in some ways under Amber Dixon.

Last year, when Buffalo was developing improvement plans for its low-performing schools, then-Superintendent James Williams had his central office staff put together the plans. Principals and teachers were lucky if they knew what was in those plans -- forget actually having any input into them.

It was yet another example of what Board President Lou Petrucci calls the "Soviet-style," centralized system that had developed in the district over the years.

When Dixon took over, she vowed to put more power in the hands of the individual schools. That included the process of putting together the improvement plans.

Ask just about anybody who was involved, and they'll tell you that the past several weeks have seen a 180-degree reversal.

This time, each principal was asked to develop a plan for his or her school. Ideally, parents and teachers at each building were to provide input along the way.

That's not the only thing that changed this time around.

Dixon also vowed that the process would be more transparent.

On Friday, I tested that transparency.

Five of the low-performing schools were holding meetings of their site-based management teams. Each one was voting on whether to recommend hiring an outside group to run the school or replacing half the staff to turn the building around. The meetings, I had been told, were supposed to be open.

Lafayette High SchoolSo I showed up at Lafayette High School's meeting.

Had I done that a year ago, under the previous administration, I can pretty much guarantee that the minute I stepped into the building, a security guard would have been summoned immediately to usher me right out.

I wasn't sure what to expect, given the current leadership in City Hall.

I checked in at the front desk, signed in at the main office, and headed down to Room 11, where the school's team was going to be meeting. I got there a few minutes early, so I chatted with a local pastor who was there, said hello to a parent, a teacher, the principal, and others there I knew.

And then, as we were waiting for everyone to show up, community superintendent Cassandra Harrington asked to speak to me out in the hall.

This would be the moment of truth.

"I've been instructed to ask the people in the room whether they're comfortable having you there," she told me. "This will only take about 10 seconds."

She asked me to wait out in the hall with principal Naomi Cerre while she found out whether the school's team would let me stay. (My presence at Lafayette had triggered an immediate phone call to Dixon, who had decided to leave it up to the school's team whether I could sit in on the meeting.)

A few seconds later, Harrington opened the door and invited me back in. The tribe had spoken -- and they were comfortable letting me stay.

That bodes well for Buffalo.

The future of the city rests on the success of the entire district. That includes turning around Lafayette and every other low-performing school.

It is taxpayer money that is funding the district now, just as it is taxpayer money that will fund any additional turnaround efforts. The process of developing those plans should be transparent, as Dixon herself has said.

So it was encouraging to be able to sit through four hours of deliberations about the future of Lafayette. I listened to teachers, administrators, parents and community members make heartfelt arguments about what they thought would be most likely to transform the school.

They had two choices: a plan to hire Johns Hopkins University to run the building, and a plan to replace half the staff and implement changes locally.

In the end, here's what it came down to.

Johns Hopkins has a strong national reputation and a track record of improving outcomes at other low-performing schools.

"But it doesn't address all our specific needs," one teacher said. "Yes, they have a proven track record -- but not with our population (with many immigrant students who do not speak English)."

"I do like Johns Hopkins, but it's not customized," said another teacher.

The group voted, 11-1, to go with a turnaround plan developed by the principal. The general feeling was that it more adequately addressed the needs of the immigrant students.

That plan establishes a second site nearby, at the old School 56, for career and technical training for students -- including training so students can become translators -- as well as programs for parents and a GED program for older students. Students would have a longer school day, and many classes would have two teachers: one for the content area, and one to help students struggling with English. Various community groups would be brought in to provide supports.

"We like the turnaround," one teacher said. "It's local. It's family."

Federal requirements for that plan call for replacing half the instructional staff. Teachers and administrators (along with Dixon) are hoping that the state will be willing to count recent staff changes toward that number, so that teacher transfers would be minimal or even nonexistent. (It remains to be seen whether the state will see things that way.)

I'm pleased to be able to share with you some of the details about Lafayette's plan. I can do that because I was able to sit through the meeting there on Friday.

That's the good news.

Now for the bad news.

Principals from Lafayette and four other low-performing schools are presenting their turnaround plans to the School Board today.

Only I'm not allowed to attend those meetings -- meaning you don't get to find out what happens today.

That's because the board is not holding an official public meeting that would have to be open to anyone who wants to attend.

Instead, the board is skirting the state's open meetings law.

It is holding two sessions: one in the morning and one in the afternoon.

Each session will have four board members. It's no coincidence that that is exactly the maximum number of board members who can meet without having to open the meeting to the public -- because four is one less than a majority of the board.

What does this mean?

The board will be voting on the improvement plan for each school on Wednesday.

That will be the first and only meeting where the merits of each option for each school will be debated by the board publicly before the district sends it applications to Albany next week.


And with only two days left until the board vote, turnaround plans developed by the principals still have not been publicly released. (You can find copies of the EPO proposals here.) I asked Dixon late last week for copies, and she told me they were still being revised.

I asked for copies of the principals' turnaround plans again this morning -- as well as the outcomes of the building votes that happened on Friday -- and here's what spokesperson Elena Cala had to say: "Board members will continue to be briefed on these documents and vote outcomes today. I will try to have a better answer for you at the end of today as to when this data will be released."

The clock is ticking. The board will vote on these plans on Wednesday.

Is this the new age of transparency -- or more of the same old, same old?

- 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 |