Two quite different views of the Buffalo Public School System – where does that leave parents and students?

When reviewing news about things that are important in Western New York our educational systems are right at the top of the list.  The largest district, which usually draws the most attention, is the Buffalo Public School System (BPS).

With a student population of approximately 30,000 students and an annual budget of nearly one billion dollars, the Buffalo System dwarfs all other Western New York school districts.  Given the high poverty rate in Buffalo, the District has many challenges well beyond those of the more financially and socially stable suburban and rural districts.

The annual budget of the BPS is funded largely by state taxpayers to the tune of 83 percent.  City of Buffalo property taxpayers contribute just 7.3 percent of the district’s revenues, a far smaller portion from local sources than other districts.

Anyone who looks at the BPS must acknowledge the difficulties of managing the system.  Poverty makes learning a difficult proposition in many Buffalo households with school-aged children.  Those children often carry the problems that exist in their homes – health and mental health issues; food challenges; crime problems – into school with them.  Those issues can carry over to student performance and educational progress.

Like any serious public issue, it is important that those charged with the responsibility for managing the system accept an honest assessment of conditions that exist.  Without focusing on realities, the ability to make measurable improvements might be difficult to impossible.

In December the Buffalo Superintendent, Dr. Kriner Cash, prefaced a proposal for very large salary increases for administrative staff with a narrative describing achievements of the district over the past several years.  Among the highlights:

  • “Through the New Education Bargain with Students and Parents, adopted by the Board in January of 2016, the District has instituted Rigorous Early Elementary Education with significantly reduced class sizes in the early grades; re-imagined ten New Innovative High Schools and programs; launched 24 thriving Community Schools; installed enriched After School programs in every school in the district; opened four full-service Parent Centers across the City; and, ratified new contracts with 10 of 11 bargaining units since 2015…
  • “After three to five years of smart and strategic investment of ARP/ESSER funds, our aim is for 100% of the student cohort to graduate high school with a college and career-ready diploma. Thus far, as a result of our Education Bargain initiatives, the high school graduation rate has climbed from 48% to an impressive 76.3% for the first time ever in the high stakes accountability era, even during adverse times; the number of schools in good standing has tripled from 14 to 46 (75% of schools); and, the number of Receivership Schools has dwindled from 25 to 3…
  • “[T]he District is in its best financial condition ever, increasing fund balance to $312 million…
  • “I am a nationally recognized and respected urban school superintendent, a career 3-time finalist for the Council of Great City Schools prestigious Green-Garner national Urban Educator of the Year Award. I have earned dozens of awards and recognitions over a career spanning nearly 45 years. I have had positive Annual Board Evaluations of my performance each of the six years of my tenure in Buffalo. The June 2021 Superintendent’s Evaluation was the highest combined performance score to date.”

Based on the achievements he noted, Dr. Cash proposed to the Board of Education a plan to provide for large pay raises for his non-union management team, with immediate raises ranging from 5.7 percent of current salary to 32.1 percent; from $5,134 to $45,000 in additional compensation.  Thirty employees would benefit.  Other BOE employees whose salaries and wages are controlled by union contract (certain administrators; teaching staff; food service; and custodial) are not involved in the proposal.  Statistics are offered that the executive staff’s salaries are significantly lower than other large districts in the state.  The fairness and appropriateness of the hefty salary increases has been challenged by some Board members and other interested parties as excessive.

Investigative Post reporter Layne Dowdall recently offered a different perspective on the work and achievements of the BPS.  Ms. Dowdall has previously reported on other aspects of the management of the system.  (Full disclosure:  I have occasionally collaborated with Investigative Post on some of their projects, but not on any concerning BPS.)

Here are some highlights from the IP analysis:

  • “Most students attending Buffalo public schools had fallen behind academically before the pandemic struck. Only a quarter of elementary and middle school students received proficient scores on their state standardized tests for reading, writing and math. The learning gap got worse when instruction went remote in March 2020 and continued through most of last school year, when only one-third of students attended class regularly.
  • “Yet, the district only held back 546 of its 29,918 students for the school year that started in September. Most of them were high schoolers. Only 43 pupils in the elementary grades were held back…
  • “District officials pledged to help students catch up by providing additional instruction and support. But little of that has been provided, according to teachers, administrators and parents interviewed for this story. Most of the district’s plan has been stymied by a myriad of problems, including staffing shortages, continued low attendance and a lack of transportation needed to conduct after-school programs. The result: Students continue to fall behind…
  • “Only 34 percent of students had satisfactory attendance rates during remote learning. Severe absenteeism — when students miss at least one day of school each week — doubled to 34 percent. Teachers said those numbers were more likely worse because students only needed to log in to their homeroom in the morning to be counted as present for the entire day…
  • “Continued cancellation and low participation in New York’s standardized tests has left many schools without a usual benchmark of student achievement. Cash expressed his reservations with the tests in a Board of Education work session in December, after being pressed by board members about what assessment data for grades 3-8 would be used as the baseline to set goals for student improvement. He criticized standardized testing as designed to benefit white, wealthy students.”

Standardized student testing has over the years gone through changes and adjustments and it is certainly subject to some criticism concerning its accuracy and value, but how else is someone to judge the work of a school district?  There is always the need to place some asterisks on the results to recognize significant issues such as a district’s poverty rate.  For Dr. Cash to suggest, however, that the tests are designed to benefit white, wealthy students is a strange comment.  It is well known that some of the strongest objections to the testing come from parents of students in the wealthiest districts.  Some people seem content not knowing what the actual results are for the districts or the students.

The bottom line in all of this is that parents and other concerned city residents are left to try and figure out why facts about school attendance, assessment tests, and related matters contrast with a very positive outlook from the Superintendent’s office.  How is the district really doing?  Considering the importance of the needed outcomes and the cost of achieving solid and accurate results, that is a very serious question that remains unanswered at the moment.

Follow me on Twitter @kenkruly