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Hot For Teachers: Charter Advocates Vent in Council Chambers

A public meeting in the Buffalo Common Council chamber Tuesday night, in response to the latest in a years-long series of crises besetting the Buffalo school system, more than lived up to its advance billing as a “Call to Action.” However, it never produced any agreement on a particular course or remedy. It also failed to focus on or highlight any reasoned analysis of the crisis’ causes, beyond a condemnation of the Buffalo Teachers Federation (BTF) and its heatedly alleged self-aggrandizement at the expense of city schools and students.

The angry, urgent tone of the gathering of 50-60 people—including about 10 school children—was in answer to an impasse between the BTF and the Buffalo school board over the issue of a New York State-mandated teacher evaluation plan. The state education department will not approve about $58 million in additional state aid and grants—mostly federal dollars from the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program—if the school district has no plan by January 17 that is acceptable to state education commissioner John King. The union has halted discussions with the school district because of another matter: Earlier this year, the district decided on the forced transfer of 53 teachers in three low-performing schools. An arbitrator and a state Supreme Court justice have upheld the BTF’s argument that this violated the teachers’ collective bargaining agreement. Since the school board announced its intention to appeal, the union has withdrawn from bargaining over the evaluation plan until the board drops its suit.

Tuesday’s meeting was held under the auspices of the Common Council’s education committee, although an aide to committee chair Demone Smith admitted Tuesday morning that it was actually organized by the District Parent Coordinating Council (DPCC) and the Community Action Organization of Erie County (CAO), two centers of support for increasing the substitution of privately run charter schools for existing public schools.

The first object of scorn to be addressed Tuesday was an October 18 vote by the BTF’s delegate council to withhold election support from councilmembers who have called for turning over two city schools to charter groups. “I am no prostitute,” Ellicott District Councilman Darius G. Pridgen declared disdainfully. “We should picket the teachers’ houses,” he said, adding, “Blessed are you who are persecuted for righteousness.”

Much of the rest of the over-two-hour-long meeting had a similarly excited mood of revivalist agitation. The Reverend Michael Badger of the Bethesda World Harvest International Church declaimed, referring to the BTF, “You can no longer use our children as a way of profiting on our pain!” He said the union’s stand amounted to a deprivation of citizens’ fundamental liberties.

L. Nathan Hare, executive director of the CAO, said, “The teachers didn’t hire me to be the public; we hired them to teach.” He attributed the stalemate to city teachers who “just don’t want to be evaluated,” and vowed, “we’re not going to keep forking over $861 million each year to people who don’t care.”

New York Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes suggested that the school board must retain some kind of residual authority to circumvent the requirements of its agreement with the union, but she didn’t indicate what it might be. At-large school board member John Licata made a careful stab at laying out the legal and historical restraints on the parties to the dispute, but Hare interrupted him with a challenge: “You’re telling us what we can’t do. Tell us what we can do.” He provided his own answer: “We can close schools entirely and reopen under a different license”—an apparent allusion to starting charter schools.

“The feds have pushed this on localities,” Licata said, referring to the “high-stakes” testing imposed on both teachers and students, a regime deplored by many teachers and a number of scholars. His notes of caution struck no apparent responsive chord, however. “If we have to close the mine,” Hare proclaimed, “then it’s time to man up!”

Wednesday morning, BTF president Philip Rumore told Artvoice that an important cause of the problems in the schools is that the board has been following the bad advice of the last three school superintendents. He said that he had to represent a large number of angry teachers. “I have to get the APPR (the evaluation plan) passed…and it hasn’t been easy.” There will be, he said, “no trust by the teachers until they know the district can be trusted” to honor its agreements.

At one juncture in the meeting, DPCC president Samuel Radford III tried to separate the attack on the union from its membership, saying he didn’t want to “tangle with the teachers,” but that the BTF was another matter. Not only was this theme not picked up by others, but he himself lapsed into accusing teachers of sacrificing “the needs of our children for their benefit.”

None of those who spoke seemed to have taken much account of the fact that more than 200 teacher-delegates from 76 schools unanimously voted in September to suspend their efforts to reach an agreement with the board until it drops its court appeal.

The belligerent, sometimes inflammatory rhetoric at Tuesday’s meeting also suggested that some community leaders haven’t adequately considered how antagonizing thousands of teachers will facilitate a better educational experience for city students.

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