Buffalo Should be Ashamed, and Terrified, By School Board Majority

As Buffalo gets more and more attention to the revitalization happening throughout the city, driven by young folks and state investments, perhaps we should be concerned that anyone who gives us a scrutinizing look will stumble upon news articles about Buffalo’s School Board.

Note that I said School Board, and not “School District.” It’s no secret that the Buffalo Schools are struggling, with graduation rates at 53%, and dropout rates three times higher as the state average, but that’s not what’s embarrassing. Most people understand that Buffalo is faring no worse than any other city with incredibly high poverty rates (especially amongst children: Buffalo has a child poverty rate of over 60%, which is at human rights violation levels).

No, what’s embarrassing about the Buffalo School District are the individuals who currently comprise our school board majority, who over the last month have engaged in some of the most appalling acts of apathy, aggression, and in one case, oppression. And no, I’m not talking about their policies.

First, let’s give some background: Last year, Buffalo elected three new school board members, two of which had the opinion 1) that the previous superintendent should be fired, and 2) that Buffalo needs more charter schools, joining three incumbents who already shared those views, and creating a 5-4 majority on the board. By summer’s end, they’d achieved #1. That majority is comprised of former real estate developers Larry Quinn and Carl Paladino, former CEO of Gateway Longview James Sampson, former police detective and chief Patricia Pierce, and real estate agent/dog park advocate Jason McCarthy.

So what about #2? Last year, four Buffalo schools received “Out of Time” determinations by the the New York State Education Department, with two scheduled to be “phased out” by 2017, and the two others by 2018, unless they could come up with new proposals to turn around their performance. All four schools came up with plans, some of which even turned perceived weaknesses (Lafayette High School’s 40+ languages spoken) into strengths (focusing on careers in translation, immigration and international services), and were scheduled to be voted on January 28th.

It created a natural clashing point for the new board majority who supported closing the schools and replacing them with charters, and parents, teachers, students, and other citizens who want to give these schools a chance to turn things around. As such, the last few weeks have resulted in some glaringly embarrassing, if not outright terrifying, displays by our board majority.

First and foremost, at the January 28th meeting (after the board decided to postpone their decision regarding these schools), a current student was giving an impassioned speech about his school to the attentive audience… and not so attentive Board Member Larry Quinn:

Buffalo’s newest print media had this to say about the incident:

 That’s Larry Quinn, being called out for checking out of board meetings where the future of our community is being decided. And he’s callously ignorant of the fact. Quinn, along with the other four board majorty members, has been aggressively pushing a pro-charter agenda since he was elected to the school board last May. This was supposed to be his big night, but perhaps in response to a large community showing questioning the prudence of this matter, it was not to be. So like any stilted bride, he soothed his pain over wifi.

As though callously ignoring the very constituent who he is supposed to serve wasn’t enough, the very next week, he followed up his apathy with outright oppression:

Yes, dissenting views are not to be tolerated in the current system, especially not from the teachers who are on the ground, witnessing the problems in our system first hand. No, if you go against the current board’s “mandate”, you are the enemy.

At least, that’s the tone set on January 22nd, when Carl Paladino told an independent investigator from the Office of Civil Rights to “Stay out of our way.”

Dr. Gary Orfield, in town on behalf of the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) to investigate another embarrassment (namely Buffalo’s application process to get into high performing schools is too difficult for low income families to easily complete… and evidenced by the lack of economic and racial diversity in those schools themselves), just sent this letter to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, showing with e-mailed evidence, that Carl Paladino attempted to intimidate him into silence regarding the district.

Apparently, during his investigation of Buffalo’s school application process, Dr. Orfield commented that the current “out of time school” decision making should be slowed so as not to complicate the already complex OCR efforts to recommend positive changes for the district. Carl Paladino took umbrage with those comments, and sent two revealing e-mails.

The e-mails deserve to be read in their entirety, and after some feedback from readers (including my grandfather, his copy of the NRA’s “America’s 1st Freedom” monthly magazine in his hands, as he passed on his advice), I’m just going to paste them completely rather than impose my own judgements (which, truth be told, has not improved with this latest tirade, though his conflict of interest as a real estate developer, and owner of several charter schools and the buildings they rent, were plenty enough reason for me to distrust him):

Mrs. Nevergold is a member and former President of the Buffalo Board of Education (BOE.) [sic] By the Way, as President of the BOE, she served on the Joint Schools Construction Board (JSCB) overseeing a ten year $1.4 billion school reconstruction program. Recent revelations show that in the best case she was incompetent to serve in that position insofar the JSCB allowed the contractor to take over $400 million in profits on the $1.4 billion contract.

On her watch the Buffalo Public Schools (BPS) sank into the abyss at the hand of an incompetent African American superintendent with no experience as a superintendent. She was hired by an African American majority of the BOE at the time who were more interested in having a superintendent they could control and protecting their power over jobs and monies than they were concerned with the education of 34,000 kids.

In May, 2014, the people of the City spoke and elected a new majority which had pledged to do whatever was necessary to turn a dysfunctional school system around. The superintendent was bought out of the last year of her contract. The BOE immediately appointed as interim Don Olgovie who had 30 years of prior experience as a superintendent and had institutional knowledge of the BPS. The new majority is now in the midst of making necessary changes to be effective for the 2015-16 school year. The children deserve much better than having 46 out of 57 BPS schools in a state of failure as defined by NY New York State [sic]. 27,000 students in failing schools are entitled under “no child left behind” to be transferred to performing schools.

The BOE minority is seeking to use you and OCR as an excuse to slow down and or stop any progress. The BOE majority has no intention of slowing the process of ridding the system of dysfunction. We will consider how to handle your proposed solutions, if any, when they are rendered.”

Dr. Orfield gave a very diplomatic response, attempting to diffuse the situation by noting he had no stake in the fight except on behalf of the welfare of the district’s children (and even appealing to Paladino’s acumen as a businessman), which could be jeopardized by even more changes to the current system while his investigation was underway.

“It seems to me that hurrying major changes in the midst of a serious civil rights investigation needlessly risks more civil rights complaints because it limits future options and limits the work. I have a great deal of experience in civil rights and education reform research and policy implementation and have found that it is much better to work things our professionally than get involved in escalating investigations and possible enforcement or litigation that could risk federal funds and put great stress on the district and its leaders. While the next step rests with the board and I [sic] my only authority is to conduct a study I believe that action to immediately change a number of schools under these circumstances could create further legal problems for the board and limit positive options for the district’s future.

In summation: Your district is already under investigation for a huge Civil Rights violation, perhaps it would be best to proceed with caution before triggering even more violations.

Here is Paladino’s response in it’s entirety:

“Thank you for your response Dr. Orfield. I’m sorry if I wasn’t clear. You were retained to advise on one issue. Now in your own smug way you seek to control the future action of the BOE, obviously after being brainwashed by members of the BOE minority.

Other majority members of the BOE and I have spent a great deal of time and resource planning changes to the dynamic of the dysfunctional BPS. The opposition wants to preserve the status quo and to do so they seek to co-opt your effort and delay our action. That will not happen. You say you don’t want to get involved in the local dispute but you side with the opposition with your demand for a standstill.

Your civil rights issue has nothing to do with our intended changes and we will not be intimidated nor will we slow our speed in implementing policy or other changes directed at education our children while you and OCR deliberate. Our mandate from the citizens of Buffalo is to face down and destroy the obstacles to providing an education for 34,000 kids.

Your effort to control our mission is exactly the type of impediment that has historically frustrated any effort to change the status quo. The nonsense of allowing you or the Justice Department to interfere and slow our process of change is the reason good people with common sense refuse to get involved and the reason that our urban systems are operated by idiot less than competent leadership intent on self empowerment with no regard for breaking down the cycle of poverty in our urban centers.

Stay out of our way Dr.”

After reading that for the fourth time, I still can’t believe what I’m seeing. Accusing an investigator of being “brainwashed”… using language that makes it sound like he’s at war with the enemy rather than making decisions about schools… calling Civil Rights investigations “nonsense”… saying they have a “mandate” to fix the schools (last I saw, Carl was elected by 2,700 residents, and in the last election, pro-charter candidates only got 47% of the total vote, with Pierce and Quinn, getting 14% and 16% respectively— those numbers do not constitute a “Mandate”).

This is our school board: ignoring the impassioned pleas of our current students, oppressing dissenting views of their teachers, and outright challenging Civil Rights investigators, not only without any regard to the current violations currently being investigated, but potentially bringing more litigation and indictments against our School District.

Add in the revelation that Board President James Sampson’s stint at the head of Gateway Longview was filled with questionable practices, and that Jason McCarthy was one of three candidates in 2010 to receive in total over $30,000 in outside money from a pro-charter PAC, Buffalonians should be embarrassed with the current state of our school board.

More importantly, we should be terrified these are the people deciding the future of our city’s children, as they will tomorrow at 10AM, when they vote on whether to close four public schools.

Written by Derek King, Architectural Historian

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