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Dysfunction Junction

The Ongoing Trials of the Buffalo School Board

Trying to find my way to the Buffalo Board of Education’s special meeting in City Hall last Friday morning (when I inquired Wednesday, no meeting room had been selected), I tagged along after Ferry member Sharon Belton-Cottman. Noticing me in the elevator, she asked, “Are you a reporter?” and added, “Well, you’re going to get an earful today!” She wasn’t just whistling Dixie. The board’s four-hour-long meeting on the eighth floor produced a lot more than one earful of arguments, stormy disagreements and personally insulting remarks. About a couple of hours after her prediction, Belton-Cottman angrily asserted the school system should be put under state receivership because of the incompetence of the (white) five-member majority. At several junctures, audience members in the packed small board chamber loudly inserted themselves into the combative proceedings around the board table, either shouting individual protests or chanting together. Several people were ejected by police officers after one outburst, and board president James Sampson, his patience apparently strained past control, yelled at someone in the audience who told him to speak up.

Almost all of this was occasioned by opposition to the majority’s plans for four state-designated failing schools: Lafayette, Bennett and East high schools and Martin Luther King Multicultural School number thirty-nine. These are deemed “out of time” schools by the state education department. The most controversial element in the majority’s proposals would invite charter school operators to bid on running them, along with Riverside High School.

The board’s performance Friday was preceded by a regularly scheduled meeting Wednesday night in which it took little part, instead hearing from about thirty speakers addressing the majority’s plans, and alternative plans generated by school-based committees composed of teachers and other community “stakeholders,” which do not include charter school takeovers. A loud assembly of over 200 people sang, chanted, and shouted opposition to the board-majority plans (“Whose schools? Our schools!”). Virtually all the speakers voiced sharp disapproval of those plans. One of the speakers, Bennett senior Michael Ortiz, sang a school anthem with several other students, and then called the majority’s objectives “criminal.”

A number of the speakers seemed to question these members’ motives and understanding of the schools’ challenges and inadequate support. Former Lafayette teacher Jane Van Deusen told them that the high school has five interpreters for students who speak up to 40 languages, citing this as an example of Lafayette’s chronic lack of resources. “Our society was built on public schools,” she lectured the board, alluding to the presumed menace of charter schools.

Larry Scott, co-chair of the Buffalo Parent Teacher Organization, told Artvoice after the meeting that the school district would still be responsible for providing remediation and special-education resources if the schools’ control was transferred to charters, because those organizations are ill equipped to do so.

Almost the only speaker to publicly voice support for the five board members’ ideas was Samuel Radford III, president of the District Parents Coordinating Council. (He is the potential recipient of an ex-officio board seat under one of the majority’s resolutions.) In a brief interview, he called the meeting “a show” and “entertainment.” “Where were all these people for years” when the DPCC was fighting for students to receive a better education?, Radford asked. (The DPCC has long had a favorable posture regarding charter schools, organizing public events to highlight or celebrate the charters’ alleged achievements.)

On Friday, the controversy continued, but it was now more a close-quarters fight, and more personal. Board members now had an opportunity to go at each other, and they took advantage of it repeatedly. The ostensible and major purpose of the special meeting was to vote on what became two competing resolutions for the four deficient schools, plus Riverside High. One had been assembled by Interim Superintendent Donald A. Ogilvie, the other was championed by member Larry Quinn on behalf of his four like-minded colleagues. Complicating, and intensifying, the emotion and conflict was Carl Paladino’s public and unusual clash with political scientist Gary Orfield, hired by the board as a consultant on possible district racial segregation and inequity after a parent complaint to the federal education department. The four African-American women in the board minority interjected comments about Paladino’s aggressive dismissal of Orfield’s usefulness and relevance to the fate of those four schools. They charged he had no intention of fairly evaluating Orfield’s final recommendations as they pertain to the schools, and, finally, Paladino responded. He said he “will not sway from my determination to give these kids an education,” a seemingly empty rhetorical assertion, given the federal government’s ability to penalize the district if it’s found non-compliant with civil rights law. Orfield had asked the board to refrain from finalizing plans for the four failing schools until he had completed his report. As writer Shane Meyer recently noted in The Public, Radford, who helped initiate Orfield’s hiring, has nevertheless over the last month been urging the board to go ahead with its plans.

Ogilvie’s proposal was carefully crafted to surmount all these difficulties. It incorporated important features of the school-based committees’ recommendations. Under his submission, there would be no charter school presence at the four schools or at Riverside, at least in the near term.

In what will likely be a vote that will continue to resonate this year, the five white members voted down their superintendent’s plan. Ogilvie had been picked for the office, despite the minority’s skepticism and resentment. Now it was their turn to support him. Former board president Barbara Seals Nevergold called him “his own man.” The five others quickly went on to their own plans, as explained and defended by Quinn. He and his faction wanted to connect their proposals to long-stalled contract negotiations with the Buffalo Teachers Federation, something union president Phil Rumore has more than once called improper and a strong-arm tactic, vowing to resist it. More centrally, they wanted a greater use of district space by charter schools, including at Riverside High, which they sought to close as a public institution.

They seemed on their way to voting their plan in when the four-woman minority adroitly brought things to a stop by objecting that Sampson was incorrectly attempting to limit debate without the required two-thirds vote in favor. After extended and angry debate over this contention, and an ugly moment when Paladino called board counsel Rashonda Martin (an African-American woman) “ignorant” as she seemed to be favoring the protest, Quinn and company retreated. The greater part of Ogilvie’s resolution was adopted unanimously.

But this final, improbable accord and quiet may very well be misleading, and short-lived. The result may not have been reached through actual collaboration between the four-member minority and the superintendent, but this implicit challenge to the majority will surely register with at least two of their number—for some time. And their zeal to privatize portions of the school system isn’t a good bet to subside soon. It’s likely to outlive the delimited tenure of the interim superintendent.

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