Buffalo Not Involving Parents, May Face Funding Hold

Buffalo Superintendent Pamela Brown's woes continue, as she was recently told by the state Education Department to try again regarding the district's continued failure to properly include parents in its application for millions in federal grant money and all its school improvement plans. Until the district has "meaningful" discussions with its parent groups as required by law, the state is placing a temporary hold on $36 million in federal aid, according to the director of Title I School and Community Services, Roberto Reyes.

This decision represents another rebuke from the state and reinforces the District Parent Coordinating Council's long-standing contention that parents are not treated as true partners in the improvement of education for Buffalo children, although it's unlikely to have a serious, immediate impact on the district's budget.

"They're struggling with the fact that they have to actually respect parents as something other than a group that does baked good sales," said parent council President Samuel Radford III, referring to Brown and her predecessor, James Williams. "I'm serious. They're struggling with this."

Radford warned Brown and the School Board back in August and September that a complaint with the state would be filed by the parent council if the district submitted these plans and applications without further consultation with parent leaders. Regardless, the district and the board went ahead with the application and plan submissions. The use of $36 million in federal aid and detail how the district and individual schools plan to improve academic performance are governed by these documents.

According to Sandra Tan of The Buffalo News, Reyes stated on December 19th that district leaders must prove that they solicited feedback from the parent council in developing the district's applications and plans even if they are not required to gain the approval of the parent group in the submission of these documents. In his letter to the superintendent on the same day, Reyes stated that the district did not meet this requirement despite the district's submission of hundreds of pages of documents in October attempting to prove otherwise. The state therefore as a result is "placing a hold" on the district's previously approved consolidated application, which would have released millions in federal Title I antipoverty money and other federal grant funding.

With the district scheduling a series of meetings with the parent council in January to discuss the improvement plans and federal grant application, the release of that money is contingent to the move's success. Progress reports, including meeting minutes and other documentation, must be submitted to the state as proof the state's directive is being met. To have the Education Department reinstate the district's budgets, the district will have to submit a request by 1st February 2014.

A one-month delay would not be considered a major setback since the district initially covers its own costs up front despite it relying on state and federal grant reimbursements to support much of its work. However, from a public relations angle, the state's withholding of federal aid is problematic for a superintendent who has had top state education officials repeatedly showing up on her doorstep with concerns that must be immediately addressed.

On December 20th, assistant Education Commissioner Ira Schwartz and other state officials met with the superintendent for hours to discuss a number of concerns, including the state's directive to meet with the parent group or face a further tie-up of funds.

"Ira Schwartz made it crystal clear that the money will not be released until the district comes into compliance," said Radford, who also attended the meeting. "There's no ambiguity there.""

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