Wednesday night’s meeting of the Buffalo Public School Board came with an overwhelming theme that some things needs to change. Among them: the long-looming issues of chronic absenteeism; distribution of grant funding, and the behavior and operations of the board, itself.
Absenteeism & Funding Distribution
During the public comment portion of Wednesday night’s meeting, Riverside High School History Teacher Marc Bruno urged the board to seek help from state officials to determine why students are failing to attend school. Bruno read aloud a list of absences from multiple students in one of his five classes. The days of school missed by individual students numbered as high as 157, all due to illegal absences.
School board student representative Ameer Dunston said one of the problems is teachers.
“Some of them oppress the students and make them feel unwanted or that they’re less worthy than maybe some other students, or just as an individual. They try to lower their self-esteem,” explained Dunston.
On last night’s agenda was close to $100,000 dollars in federal grant funding for three local groups tasked with helping reduce absenteeism in some district schools. They include Child and Adolescent Treatment Services, F.A.T.H.E.R.S., and WNY United Against Drug & Alcohol Abuse working in Public Schools 31 and 43, 61, and 74, respectively.
When it came time to discuss the funding, board members discussed the merits of tackling the issue of absenteeism on a small sale, versus taking a more comprehensive approach. They also voiced their displeasure over the way grant funding is being distributed in Buffalo’s public schools overall.
Board Member Larry Quinn said too much money is being paid to the administrators of certain programs, while too little is reaching the student level. He said the board goes through repeated conversations over grants that use money in ways they’re not wholly satisfied with, but chooses to approve them out of fear of losing funding.
“And so now we go month after month, year after year, approving things that are not effective and not helping children and the excuse is always, ‘Well if we don’t do it, it goes back.’ At some point you have to put your foot down and say, ‘This is nuts.’ There are poor kids out there who are having a horrible time with this.”
Superintendent Kriner Cash said if the board gives him goals on how to address the distribution of grant funding, he’ll take care of the problem.
Quinn and other board members called for changes to the way the grants to fight absenteeism were written, but Chief of School Leadership Dr. David Mauricio said any change to the grants at this stage would likely result in the loss of their funding. The board ultimately voted to approve them.
Planning a School Board Retreat
Cash has recommended that school board members set aside time to address problems within the board and plot its future direction. During the Wednesday night meeting, the details of who, when, where, and how were become hotly debated.
Board Vice President Jason McCarthy said the current hold-up for planning a board retreat comes down to finding a moderator and picking a date. Cash reminded the board that full participation will be the key to success.
“You’ve got to get buy-in on this,” urged Cash. “Because it won’t be effective if five of us are there.”
Board Member Mary Ruth Kapsiak echoed the necessity of the retreat.
“If you don’t have nine members participating in the retreat, then there’s your indication that we don’t want to work cohesively together to move this district forward,” said Kapsiak.
Board Member Larry Quinn cited the advice of the board’s legal counsel when he said the substance of what needs to be talked about can’t be discussed in private, as it would violate the board’s open meeting law. Instead, Quinn wants the discussion to be held in a special forum, open to the public.
“Let’s just do it,” said Quinn. “Let’s have it out in the public and let’s have that discussion, because I don’t see the point of going to a retreat where we can’t talk about the issues we need to talk about.”
While Board Member Theresa Harris-Tigg agrees the retreat is necessary, she doesn’t believe the topics are for the public’s ears. She said the way the board operates is unacceptable.
“I think we need to talk about the impact of our behaviors and our actions on the board and I think that’s a work session between us,” said Harris-Tigg.
Board members have now been asked to submit recommendations for a local moderator to facilitate the discussion, which will be held sometime in January.