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School-dazed and Confused

Much of the discussion in the Buffalo Board of Education meeting room in City Hall late Wednesday afternoon, as board members met to receive revisions to Superintendent James A. Williams’ school reform plans, had an obviously amicable tone.  There were calls for cooperation and collaboration between the various community interests and entities, including from the sometimes contentious and controversial Williams.  Near the meeting’s end, he rose, microphone in hand, to avuncularly commend audience members’ commitment and “passion,” minutes after some of them had objected to aspects of his performance and programs.

In fact, long-simmering and recently escalating differences kept interrupting the efforts at maintaining a tenor of agreeableness.  As board members and others arrived for the meeting, 150-200 teachers marched in front of City Hall to protest Williams’ “turnaround” plan for six PLA—persistently low achievement—schools.  This plan, announced several weeks ago, would transfer 250 teachers from these schools after all 500 in their faculties underwent interviews and evaluations.  The Buffalo Teachers Federation has adamantly opposed this, and said it’s a violation of its contract, as well as being grossly unfair, disruptive, and counterproductive.

Wednesday, Williams introduced a new set of plans to turnaround these schools, one which he said might halve the number of teachers forcibly transferred.  In fact, it seemed to borrow at least moderately from ideas put forward by federation president Philip Rumore over the last two months, but he told Williams and the board Wednesday evening that the union would not agree to this revision either. “We will not compromise” [on forced teacher transfers],” Rumore told them.

Actually, Williams’ revisions were unveiled, in somewhat sketchy terms, at a regularly scheduled 4pm “Student Achievement” meeting, prior to the 5:30pm convening of the board, although its members were present.  The primary thrust of this new plan is to reduce from six to three the schools subject to replacement of half of their faculty.  The remaining three would become part of an EPO—educational partnership organization—program, one of four models New York State and the federal government allow under various circumstances.  They would be partnered with outside education-related organizations, groups that would accept some of school administrations’ responsibilities and authority.

In an interview after Williams’ brief presentation, board member John Licata—who greeted the superintendent’s proposal with some favor—said D’Youville College, for example, could advise a school principal about faculty and instructional programs and if the school and the district rejected these ideas, the board would have to inform the state of its reasons.  Acceptance by the state of the district’s plans for school change would produce $2 million per school for three years the district could spend on implementing the approved changes.  (The three schools where at least one-half the faculty could be removed are: Waterfront School, Lafayette High School, and East High School. The four schools Williams proposes to link with EPOs are Buffalo Elementary School of Technology, Futures Academy, Dr. Charles Drew Science Magnet, and Bilingual Center School.)

In interviews Wednesday and Thursday, Rumore called much of the Williams plan “Crazy —-. It’s teacher musical chairs,” he complained.  “If a principal [in the three affected schools] wants to keep more than half the teachers, it can’t be done!”  This reform program will create educational and personal headaches among principals, teachers, students and parents, he says, without improving anything.  And he lays a large part of the blame on US Education Secretary Arne Duncan and what Rumore regards as his arbitrary and semi-draconian program for improving schools.

The union’s objections are much more than an inconvenience or a political complication.  Rumore must sign off on any application to New York State for the federally-provided monies, and he says he has no intention to do so.  With this roadblock looming before the May 9 deadline, there was a curious lack of ideas expressed on how it could be surmounted.  No one but Rumore even addressed the problem at Wednesday’s meeting, and two board members, who didn’t wish to be identified, said they had no ideas to share on this subject.  One union official suggested Williams might be prepared for his plan to fail, in which event the superintendent’s expectation is that the state won’t clamp down on the district, but would permit another application later in the year.

Rumore says that for almost two months, he has been asking the district to consider a broad-based EPO model, without wholesale faculty transfers, but has never received a real response to several messages.  (A parent initiated petition given the board, with over 400 signatures, asked it to delay approving the transfer plan.)

“I see a crisis,” Williams told audience members.  “We need help from you.”