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Will the board approve another last-minute contract to run a school?

Last week, tempers erupted at the board table when administrators asked the board to approve a contract with Research to Practice to get in and start running Buffalo Elementary School of Technology.

The board voted in December 2011 to hire the group to run the school. State Ed approved the plan in May.

But things hit a snag over the summer because the state has not approved the district's teacher evaluation plan. Until the district revises the plan in such a way that the state will approve it, the state will not release federal grant money for BEST. That's the $1.8 million needed for the first year of the three-year plan to have Research to Practice run the school.

At the same time, the district also needs to get Research to Practice in the school as soon as possible. The state expects the district to start implementing the improvement plan right away.

When board members arrived in City Hall last Wednesday afternoon, they were handed a 75-page contract designed to pay Research to Practice about $320,000 to get them in the school right away to get things rolling.

Board members had never seen the contract until then and had had no chance to review it.

"Do we need to approve this tonight?" Rosalyn Taylor asked Associate Superintendent Debra Sykes.

"It is before you this evening for your approval. They can't come into the school until we have your approval," Sykes said.

And in short order, the board launched into an angry debate.

"I realize we need to get Research to Practice inside the school, but we knew this two months ago," Sharon Belton Cottman said. "I am upset we continue to get last-minute decisions dumped on us."

Board President Mary Ruth Kapsiak suggested tabling the contract for a week, to give board members a chance to read it.

"SED's expectation is that the plan is being implemented now that the school year has started," Superintendent Pam Brown said. "I certainly apologize for any confusion this document may have caused. This was our effort at getting the plan to start being implemented."

She noted that the board had already approved the full plan for Research to Practice to run BEST, even if they hadn't seen the specific terms of the 75-page contract until minutes before the meeting.

At that point, John Licata championed approval of the contract.

"We've got to get the people in place. We've got to show these people we are serious," he said. "Each one of these children is in a PLA school. We're saying, well, a week doesn't matter to us. Well, maybe it matters to them."

Cottman stood her ground, pointing out for a second time that there was no one on hand from Research to Practice to answer the board's questions.

"The issue is we're always at the 11th hour with these things being thrown at us that have to be signed off on," she said. "It's not about the money and it's not about not knowing these children need these services. What I'm concerned about is we agreed to sign a contract and we don't have clarity on it. This is what always happens on this board."

Several months earlier, she said, the board had questions about Research to Practice.

"When the [educational partnership organization] was presented, we had questions and we were told we would get the questions later. And we never got the answers," Cottman said. "Before we agree to a contract, we need to get these questions answered. And I don't think that's an unfair request."

Sykes ended up managing to get someone from Research to Practice to phone into the meeting to answer questions. She was generally able to answer the questions that board members asked.

Kapsiak scolded the woman, making it clear that the board needed to be provided with information in a more timely manner in the future.

"Based on the fact that we have you working with our team on these kinds of issues, we need to get these to the board members prior to the date of voting on them," Kapsiak said. "These are important matters and we are going to have to be time-sensitive to things getting to the board table."

Barbara Seals Nevergold noted she hadn't been on the board when the original plan with Research to Practice was approved. But, she said, she had concerns about the direction the conversation was taking.

"Getting [the contract] this late made it hard to review it," Nevergold said. "But we're getting into micromanagement."

Kapsiak responded: "It's not micromanaging when you sit here and you have to vote on something. There have been mistakes that have come through, budget issues [and so on]. I want things to come through in a timely fashion. Don't bring things to me the day of. In the future it's unacceptable."

Well, guess what?

In the board packet for tonight's meeting, there's a note regarding one of the contracts the board is scheduled to vote on.

It happens to be the contract with Johns Hopkins University.

The university, you might remember, was supposed to run East and Lafayette high schools this year. But in April, when it became apparent that state funding for the plans was in jeopardy because there was still no teacher evaluation plan in place, Johns Hopkins made it known it could not start running the schools in September.

It looks as though the board is going to be asked to consider a transitional contract with Johns Hopkins tonight, similar to the transitional contract it was presented last week for Research to Practice.

And it's deja vu all over again.

The note in tonight's board packet regarding the Johns Hopkins contract says, "The following item is not available at this time. Copies will be available in the Board Office, Room 801 City Hall, on Wednesday, September 12, 2012."

I'll be live blogging the board meeting at 5:30 p.m., so if you want to see how this shakes out, join me online here at the School Zone blog.

In the meantime, here's the entire board packet for tonight:

School Board Packet 9-12-2012

- 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 |