Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Does a new state education law undermine school boards?

Posted By on Wed, Jul 29, 2015 at 4:37 PM

The Rochester school board is grappling with a new state education law involving receivership for failing and persistently failing schools. According to the Regents' EngageNY website, the intent of receivership is to address the barriers that have prevented some school leaders from turning around failing schools.
click to enlarge Rochester school board member Mary Adams - FILE PHOTO
  • Rochester school board member Mary Adams

The barriers include: governance, school leadership, teachers, union contracts, and so on. Certainly the case could be made that barriers do indeed exist in a large bureaucracy like the Rochester school district.

But you have to ask, did lawmakers create a law that essentially undermines the democratic process and silences the same parent voices they claim they want to hear?

A quick recap of school receivership: In a failing school, the superintendent, as the receiver, is given two years to improve student achievement. In a persistently failing school, the superintendent is given one year.

Rochester schools Superintendent Bolgen Vargas, as the receiver, has the power to review and make changes to the school budget, create or change school programs and curriculum, require all school staff to reapply for their jobs, and even convert the school to a charter school or a community school.

But most unusual is the ability to supersede a decision by the school board — what the law calls “supersession.”

Vargas says that he will not make staff reapply for their positions or make any dramatic changes to staffing.

But a key component of any receiver’s state-approved school intervention plan is parent and community engagement. And as school board member Mary Adams pointed out at yesterday's monthly business meeting, engagement must be more than notification of a public hearing. Any intervention plan must go beyond merely notifying parents and the community that the school is in receivership. According to the law, stakeholder input must be part of the intervention plan.

But if democratically elected voices for parents and the community have been undermined and dis-empowered, as Adams put it, is there a risk that community engagement is minimized and even overridden? Despite the good intentions of lawmakers in Albany, it now becomes even more important for board members to speak out and raise questions, because the community may not know that its input isn't optional. It's required. 

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