Ogilvie: School reform will take 10 years

It will take up to 10 years to turn around Buffalo’s public schools, School Superintendent Donald Ogilvie told an audience of around 70 at a luncheon Wednesday hosted by Investigative Post.

And that turnaround will only happen if best teaching practices, currently stymied by outdated union work rules, are put in place, two other speakers added.

Ogilvie detailed the problems he’s encountered in Buffalo schools since starting as interim superintendent in July and told the sold-out luncheon at Osteria 166 that they will take seven to 10 years to resolve. It’s essential, he said, that the Board of Education avoid bickering and unite behind a reform agenda.

“Will we, as a district, fight big ideological battles or get down in the mud and fight about small issues that have no relevance?” he said.

Other speakers said reform must include revisions to labor contracts to enable the district to employ best teaching practices in the classroom.

Ogilvie described the district’s contract with the Buffalo Teachers Federation as “enormously restrictive,” noting that the work rules have not been revised in over 20 years.

“The whole issue comes down to three words: collective bargaining agreements,” said Steve Polowitz, an attorney and a co-founder of Tapestry Charter School.

All three speakers agreed that the district is in serious trouble: 44 out of 56 schools are considered academically troubled. Those schools include 80 percent of the district’s enrollment.

“We’ve gone from failing kids on a year-to-year basis to failing them from one generation to the next,” Polowitz said.

Efrain Martinez, superintendent of the Charter School for Applied Technology, said research has established that all children can excel academically.

“All children can learn: neurology has demonstrated that”, said Martinez, whose program last year had the highest graduation rate of any high school in Erie County.

The key, he said, is a flexible instructional program that’s geared to give students multiple opportunities to learn – like staying later in school to revisit work they have struggled with.

The Buffalo school system should have the same expectations of all students, Martinez said. But each school needs different kinds of intervention to help students achieve these. Charter schools provide one piece of the puzzle, he said, but they are not the whole answer.

Polowitz said that efforts to provide effective teaching practices in struggling public schools have been hindered by restrictive labor contracts that have left the district no option other than charter schools, to introduce innovation.

The school district’s relationship with the Buffalo Teachers Federation is “horribly toxic,” he said, because state law tips the balance of power in the union’s favor.

Added Ogilvie: “enduring tensions” exist between teachers’ unions, board of education members, and parents. Describing other broad measures that could improve schools – a less risk-averse management culture, less focus on standardized testing – he said that “everything I’ve discussed puts people on edge.”

Nonetheless, he said, “the bottom line is that we cannot get better if we do not change.”

The luncheon is part of “At Issue,” an event series hosted by Investigative Post, presented by Bernhardi & Lukasik and sponsored by the M&T Charitable Foundation; Talking Leaves Books; Schroeder, Braxton & Vogt; WGRZ and Artvoice.

The series continues Oct. 29 at with a presentation by Investigative Post Editor Jim Heaney on the Buffalo Billion, and Nov. 5 with a showing of the film “Good Night, and Good Luck.” Details on the entire series can be found here.