From Spending to Governance, Buffalo Facing School Turmoil

james_sampson

A massive renovation of crumbling Buffalo, New York schools is drawing to a close with about a quarter of the $175 million of the building fund not accounted for and leaving two members of the project’s oversight board wanting to know how much developer LP Ciminelli received as profit.

The money, $41 million, was part of the final phase of the $1.4 billion, ten year renovation of the city’s schools. Carl P. Paladino and Larry Quinn, school board members who are also on the Joint Schools Construction Board, are demanding an audit of the entire project. Sandra Tan and Tiffany Lankes of The Buffalo News report that special legislation allowed the company to have a “design build” agreement, which required a fixed payment amount. However, according to some, the 48 reconstructed schools are well done and seem to be proof that the decision was a good one.

“The role of the Joint Schools Construction Board is to say, ‘Did we get what we paid for?’ And no one has disputed that to this day,” company spokesman Kevin C. Schuler said Tuesday. “You can drive around to every school around this city and see where this money went. To imply that the district did not get what they’re paying for, that’s not true.”

The company would not provide a public summary of Ciminelli’s internal costs. But Paladino and Quinn want to know how the money was spent, especially since the project was paid for by taxpayer money.

Meanwhile, Buffalo School Board President Jim Sampson and member Paladino want an education “czar” to step in and help their struggling district turn around its failing schools. WIVB-TV’s Rich Newberg quotes Sampson:

“If that’s the state law and if it’s clear that we’re not able to move fast enough, quick enough, and effectively enough to get the job done, I think it’s my responsibility to step aside and be supportive of that.”

Governor Andrew Cuomo wants the State’s Board of Regents and the Education Department to ask lawmakers to allow the state to possibly do away with an ineffective school board and ignore teachers union rules that would prohibit flexibility in the way schools are run.

“Today we have two education systems if we want to tell the truth,” the Governor said during his inaugural address. “One for the rich and one for the poor. And if you happen to be born in the wrong zip code, and go to a failing school, you will get left behind and never catch up.”

Western New York teachers unions and the Buffalo Parent Teachers Association disagree with the governor, stating that this will remove the democratic and public control of the public schools. But Sam Radford, president of the District Parent Coordinating Council in Buffalo, says the state may have to become involved since hundreds of students who wish to leave failing schools are not able to attend schools in good standing.

In response to a letter from the Board of Regents Chancellor Meryl T. Tisch, which suggested that the school board be dismantled, the board’s answer amounted to, ‘Go ahead. Try it.‘ They added that the state too will have trouble dealing with the lunacy of state mandates, unions, and all the other problems facing board members.

This conflict, however, is nothing new, reports Tiffany Lankes for The Buffalo News. Governor Cuomo once called for a “death penalty” for schools and districts that continually failed to meet the standards required by the state. Sampson warns that if the board cannot make things work, there are people out there who will try to take control away from them.

Five proposals had been submitted to the Buffalo Public Schools district by the set deadline.  The proposals were requested to transform and relaunch Bennett, Lafayette, and East high schools, as well as Martin Luther King Multicultural Institute. One outside proposal was for a “Center for Modern Socratic Innovation @ MLK” and another was MLK’s own proposal. Each of the three high schools had only one proposal submitted, which were written by school staff and alumni, with assistance from the district’s central administration. Now the proposals will be reviewed on Jan. 14; the school board will approve one proposal for each school by Jan. 28; then the state Education Department will be responsible for evaluating and approving the plans. The new academic programs are a requirement to keep these schools open.