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Viewpoints: To fix Buffalo education, start with an elected school board

Last of five parts.

By Larry Quinn

Each of my columns the last four weeks have described a different aspect of the crisis in our Buffalo Schools. I could write another 10. My motivation for writing was not political or personal. I wrote because I feared that too many people have been misled by Superintendent Kriner Cash’s proclamation that “The Buffalo Schools is turned around.” Although some evidence of progress is detectable, the larger turnaround narrative is borderline fraudulent. Too many Buffalo school kids continue to suffer while adults seek praise for little result.

Despite an apparent watering down of the test, almost 80 percent of Buffalo students are deficient in language skills and a higher percentage are deficient in math.

The Buffalo graduation rate, like the rest of New York, has improved. However when you consider that students are permitted to keep taking the Regents test until they pass, and only one level of mathematics is required (in lieu of the traditional four), a Regents diploma is of questionable value. The number of students who are truly college ready or able to enter the workforce, should be the only test that counts. The evidence suggests that many graduates are not.

Cash successfully concluded the first collective bargaining agreement with the teachers union in 12 years. Unfortunately, nothing changed in the classroom. Buffalo Teachers Federation President Phil Rumore continues to play his tricks at the expense of economically disadvantaged students. Grievances and lawsuits continue to be filed at every turn. And although the disgusting cosmetic rider is gone for active teachers, retired teachers still enjoy this benefit. Think of how many children missed a chance at an education because an adult used that money for breast implants or liposuction. It still makes me furious to think about it.

The old adage “You can’t win if you don’t show up” still applies to Buffalo Schools. Fifty-six percent of all Buffalo students miss so much school their absences are categorized as at Risk, Chronic or Severe. Teachers are not quite as bad, but the average teacher came to work 93 percent of the time. Teachers have the summer off, and approximately three weeks of holidays and breaks throughout the year. A 7 percent absentee rate equals 12 missed days, or almost three weeks of classroom time. Once again poor, kids are shortchanged by adults.

If this dysfunction were not enough, children travel back and forth to school in a milieu of extreme violence. Fifty-seven murders last year equals one every six days. When I relayed this statistic to an American friend living in Paris, she almost fell on the floor. She finally exclaimed “What has become of our country?” Tragically, I had to tell her that most people just take it in stride. As a young mother, she was incredulous.

And the cavalry is not on the way. Education is the purview of the New York State Board of Regents, whose members are appointed by the State Assembly. Although there was a time when the Regents were progressive agents for change, they have been totally co-opted by the New York State United Teachers. As a loyal supplicant to the union agenda, Commissioner MaryEllen Elia has almost completely undone the reforms of her predecessor, John B. King Jr. She has basically taken the teeth out of the school receivership law, dumbed down the proficiency tests, advocated a cap on charter schools, eliminated the literacy test for teachers and, recently, all but ended the possibility of independent teacher evaluations. Poor children can expect nothing from the Regents or Commissioner Elia.

So what do we do?

Most Buffalonians appreciate the help we get from the state during extreme blizzards. We just don’t need another press conferences on how to shovel snow. We’re pretty good at that.

But we sure could use one on education, and the governor and mayor need to be at the podium for this one, too.

No matter what you think of him, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has shown a capacity to be a strong leader on issues he cares about. The governor understands the dysfunction and inequity in the education system. It’s time for him to step up and be a leader on behalf of children.

The same goes for Mayor Byron W. Brown. Brown is in his fourth term as mayor and has rarely stuck a toe into education waters. However, I think he is finally ready and willing to play a significant role.

Here are a few helpful things Cuomo and Brown can do:

• Appoint the Board of Education: The governor and the mayor need to replace the existing School Board. The elective process is tainted. As I said before, electing the junior varsity of the Democratic Party is no way to ensure “high academic achievement for all.” There certainly should be strong representation from the served community. Current board members like Sharon Belton-Cottman and Patty Pierce, who have shown passion for children, could provide great service. But the political hacks need to go. The board desperately ne professional representation from the business, charitable and social service sectors. The elective process rarely produces these types of members.

• Control Board Powers: People tend forget that Buffalo was essentially bankrupt in 2003. In response, then-Gov. George E. Pataki appointed a hard fiscal control board to manage the city’s finances and monitor its contractual commitments. The Buffalo Fiscal Control Board had the power to freeze wages, abrogate contracts and generally approve all actions of the city government. Although the Buffalo Public Schools are not in immediate fiscal peril, its mission to educate children is greatly impaired. Seniority rules, hiring and firing restrictions, outdated tenure positions and the burden of unaffordable retiree health care etc. all need reform. Although I think the employee salary scale should be sacrosanct, the new board should have the power to change everything else.
• Fiscal reform: I think school finances are well managed within the constraints of current education law. However, Buffalo Public Schools suffer from a gross misallocation of resources largely mandated by the state and/or bad labor agreements. The district spends $142 million a year on self-contained special education classrooms, at one of the highest per-pupil costs in the nation. It spends around $70 million, or $17,000 per teacher, for retiree health care. The implementation of a mandatory Medicare advantage plan for retirees could cut these costs by two-thirds, or $6 million. Busing costs another $60 million. Busing may be necessary to an extent but not at such an extraordinary cost. Tenured employees left over from expiring grants, teachers awaiting disciplinary charges and teachers playing hookey from school all cost the district tens of millions of dollars. The new board ne the power to end these practices and reallocate the money to kids.

• Renewed Early Childhood Education: As I wrote previously, the first four years of children’s lives are critical to their success in school. It’s disturbing to read about the political shenanigans in the city’s Head Start program. It’s absolutely appalling that the Community Action Organization earned a low 2.1 rating (out of a possible 7) for its Head Start program and that the CAO’s director claims not to know anything about it. The governor and mayor should direct the Buffalo School District to take responsibility for all early child education programs. The board should be free to undertake this work in conjunction with the Erie County Social Services Department and other professional agencies like Parent Home Plus. The early lives of children are way too important for business as usual.

• End the violence: Our children are living in a quasi war zone. It has to end, and end now. I believe that we can attribute most of the violence to small and midsized groups that have carved out their turf in our school buildings and surrounding neighborhoods. I first brought this issue to the attention of the board two years ago. I was told to stop exaggerating and that the problem was under control. Fifty-seven murders in one year is not under control. Nor is it exaggerating. One thing is clear: The whole city ne to be engaged in an effort to stop the violence affecting children. The National Network for Safe Communities has developed a model that seems to work, but if that approach won’t do, then there must be another. More press conferences are not helpful. This ne high-level, communitywide action. The governor, mayor and the county executive need to join forces, much as governments did after 9/11, to end this tragedy.

• Hatch Act for Education: The Hatch Act forbids federal employees from engaging in certain types of political activity. We need a similar law for the School Board, district employees and their unions. There is something extremely wrong that Rumore plays such a large role in electing School Board members who must negotiate with him over contracts, grievances and lawsuits. It should be a surprise to no one that the 12-year-old teachers contract was settled immediately after Rumore’s people won the last election. Politics ne to be out of education. Period, end of sentence.
So you have my thoughts after five year of service. I want to thank The Buffalo News for giving me the opportunity to share these articles with you. (Links to the four previous articles are listed below.) Finally I want to thank the citizens of Buffalo for entrusting me to help with your children’s education. I did my best.

Larry Quinn is an at-large member of the Buffalo School Board. He is not running for re-election.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4