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When will Albany ride in and save Buffalo's schools?

In the midst of all the talk about the millions that the Buffalo schools stand to lose in the absence of a teacher evaluation agreement the state will approve, I've heard more than one person speculate that the state is sitting back, waiting for things to get so bad that it has grounds to come in and take over the district.

I've even heard a School Board member speculate along that line recently.

Hernandez at mtg"If we botch this up, no matter who's at fault, the state is coming in to take full control," Ralph Hernandez told me. "They're watching. If we botch this up, then for them, it will be show time."

That got me thinking about all the rumblings I've heard over the past two years about a state takeover of the district. I've heard Regent Bob Bennett and Commissioner John King both talk about the legislation that would give the state the authority to take over a persistently failing district. I know School Board members worry -- some more than others, and at certain times more than others -- that if they  can't turn the district around, they'll find themselves tossed out while Albany takes over.

How much substance is there to all the talk?

There's a bill that was introduced last year that would allow for the state to unseat the School Board in a "chronically underperforming" school district.

How, exactly, would that play out?

Well, it's hardly a quick process that the bill spells out.

First, a district would have to be identified as being in "stage one academic or financial at-risk status." Next, the district has 90 days to come up with goals, and a plan for achieving them.

If the district fails to meet those goals for three consecutive school years, then the commissioner can find it to be in stage two -- and appoint a distinguished educator to help the district meet its goals.


Let's pause for a moment here.

John King2Bennett and King have been saying since September and October that they would be appointing a distinguished educator to Buffalo. I've been hearing since about December a certain name circulating as the apparent appointee -- but still no contract has been signed. Just file that away in the back of your mind for a few minutes. We'll revisit it soon.

Back to the legislation.

If the district fails to meet its goals three years in a row, the commissioner can designate it as being in stage three of academic or financial restructuring status. At that point, the commissioner appoints an independent review team.

If that team determines the School Board's actions or inactions have "interfered with implementation of the district's plan," the Board of Regents can remove all the School Board members and appoint a three-member education oversight board.

That oversight board would have the power to appoint a new superintendent.

So -- could the state swoop in and take over Buffalo?

Theoretically, yes.

But that hardly seems likely to happen, and certainly not any time soon.

For one thing, the bill doesn't seem to have much support in the Legislature. Elected officials are not too keen on unseating other elected officials.

Crystal Peoples-StokesI talked to Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, who has introduced more than one measure supported by Buffalo parents.

Does she want to see Albany step in?

"God forbid there's a state takeover of this district," she said. "I don't want to see that happen. I don't think that's the right thing to do. I'm a little disheartened it would even come to this, that adults would consider their issues more important than the needs of children."

On top of that, there's the practical matter of whether State Ed actually has the capacity to take over an entire district. That's only happened once before in New York, in a small downstate district called Roosevelt about a decade ago, and even state officials admit it turned out to be a disaster. 

The state has been talking for months about appointing that distinguished educator -- someone to serve the Buffalo schools in an advisory role -- and even that hasn't happened yet.

Last night, at the Common Council's education meeting, parent Jessica Bauer Walker said something that cut to the heart of the matter -- see her second sentence below.

"What this broken system wants us to do is become disheartened, so that we, as a community, believe we are inadequate and broken and wait for some higher power to save us. Nobody will save us but ourselves," Bauer Walker said.

There's no cavalry suiting up in Albany, just waiting for the word to ride into Buffalo.

Even if that legislation were to get the necessary backing among lawmakers, it would literally be years before there were any kind of takeover.

Of course, it's possible a legislator could introduce some other state takeover bill, one that would expedite the process.

But even if that happened, it would probably do little to address the most immediate situation facing Buffalo schools.

The issue at hand is the district's inability to reach a teacher evaluation agreement with the union that the state will approve. The district reached an agreement acceptable to City Hall and the Buffalo Teachers Federation, but Albany said no. I'm not clear on how changing the School Board or the superintendent would alter that scenario. The teachers contract would remain in effect, even if the School Board were unseated and the superintendent were replaced.

In the meantime, the district now has a little over a week to submit a teacher evaluation plan acceptable to both State Ed and the BTF. That appears to be the only chance it has to salvage $9.3 million in school improvement grants for six schools in 2011-12.

Sam Radford in recent days has taken a more conciliatory tone toward the union, saying it's time to hash out a solution.

The district sent three City Hall administrators -- Fran Wilson, the chief academic officer; Debra Sykes, who oversees school turnarounds; and Darren Brown, who runs human resources -- to Albany on Monday in a focused effort to find some kind of compromise. Exactly how well that effort goes remains to be seen.

Everyone I've talked to in the district and in Albany seems to feel quite strongly that they want to see the district come up with some kind of solution so that it can keep the $9.3 million.

Bob Bennett2"This is not a good situation. It's not one we can allow to stand," Bennett said. "We cannot afford to lose that money for these children. We've got to keep working on it."

The district must count every student's growth in its teacher evaluations, he said. That's not negotiable.

But Bennett insists there must be a compromise that can be found.

"I'm not going to sit idly by and watch Buffalo lose $50 million," he said. "I asked John [King] to keep talking to [Interim Superintendent Amber Dixon]. I think Amber's on top of this thing. Nobody wants Buffalo to lose this money -- especially Amber."

The clock is ticking.

District administrators have a hearing with State Ed on March 22, when they will ask the state to reconsider its decision to suspend the $9.3 million. If Buffalo does not have an acceptable teacher evaluation agreement in place, it seems nearly certain that money will be lost.

Radford told me last night that if it gets to be around this time next week, and there's still no solution in place, he's going to call on a higher power to help broker a deal.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Radford noted, has declared himself "the students' lobbyist."

"If we get to March 20 and we still don't have a solution, I am going to ask the governor to step in and help us negotiate one," he said. "But there's no need to ask [now] for help solving something that we can solve ourselves."

Stay tuned.

- 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 |