Buffalo superintendent outlines reform agenda

Buffalo Superintendent Kriner Cash said Wednesday he intends to be “very aggressive” pursuing reforms in Buffalo schools and indicated he’s prepared to place underperforming schools in receivership if he can’t bargain contract changes with the Buffalo Teachers Federation.

Cash, on the job since the end of August, made the remarks during an interview with Jim Heaney during a luncheon at Osteria 166 sponsored by Investigative Post. Cash opened his remarks by both praising the city and saying he has found it parochial and resistant to change. He went on to outline an extensive, potentially exhausting agenda that he said needs to be pursued if Buffalo schools are to thrive.

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Elieen Buckley of our partners at WBFO reports on Cash’s interview. The post includes audio of the complete discussion.

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The superintendent said his priority is revising union work rules that mandate that teacher assignments be based on seniority. The superintendent said he wants the ability to place the best teachers in the schools with the greatest needs.

“You have to make sure there’s great teachers in every class in front of every child,” he told an audience of about 45. “We have a lot of good teachers, but you have a contract that constricts placing effective teachers in every classroom and getting rid of teachers who are ineffective.”

The district is in the process of responding the U.S. Office of Civil Rights regarding disparities within the district and recommendations that include the creation of a second school similar to City Honors. Rather than create a second school, Cash said he would prefer expanding the existing City Honors program and focusing on improving student achievement across the district.

On another topic, Cash said he would like to see better communication involving the Board of Education, which has been notoriously divided on issues and often confrontational with previous superintendents. Cash expressed confidence that the board can coalesce around a reform agenda. But, he said, members need to learn to work cooperatively and communicate their priorities to him.

“It would be helpful if the board and I could meet, sooner than later, and talk about what their priorities are,” said Cash, adding he’s only heard bits and pieces from board members about their goals.

The superintendent said he’s heard a lot of talk about the desire to lower class sizes, which he said is especially important in the early grades when pupils learn fundamental reading and math skills. He noted some class sizes in pre-kindergarten through the third grade surpass 30 pupils and said hiring more teachers in those grades is a priority. Towards that end, Cash said he wants to hire 66 to 100 additional reading teachers and literacy coaches for the early grades.

“But there’s not a budget to fund that priority,” said Cash. “The spending plan hasn’t been as thoughtful.

“For example, last year, at the end of the year, 31 physical education teachers were added to the budget. And we’re paying for that now. It’s now over budget in this fiscal year. When I look at the overall needs for the school district, that would have been one of the last areas I’d have funded.”

Cash also wants to centralize the purchase of learning materials. He said the decentralization of decision making in recent years has resulted in a “potpourri of purchases and experiments going on in each school.”

The superintendent has been granted unprecedented powers under recent changes in state education law to deal with underperforming schools, of which Buffalo has 25. The law proscribes a process by which the superintendent can seek to place schools in receivership and enter into negotiations with unions representing teachers and administrators seeking changes in their labor contracts. If those talks fail, he can petition the state education commissioner to sanction changes. Any unilateral changes are likely to be challenged by unions in court, however.

Cash is seeking immediate receivership for five of the district’s lowest-performing schools. He was unable to bargain all the changes he sought with the unions and has turned to the education commissioner for a ruling as to whether he can impose the changes he wants to make.

“In the receivership model we’ll make that more of an aligned process, where we get the best products, the best proven materials in there to do these things across a whole host of schools,” he said.

Cash acknowledged that not all of the district’s problems fall on educators. The superintendent said he wants to work with parents to start a “college-going culture in the home from day one.”

That starts, he said, with increasing the district’s low attendance rate.

“Attendance, we all know, is a problem in Buffalo urban schools. It’s way below the national benchmark,” he said.

The superintendent said parents need to to convey an attitude of “ ‘You’ve got to go to school, son. You’ve got to go to class when you go to school. You’ve got to do your work when you go to class. And then you’ve got to respect authority.’ Those are four things that parents have to insist on for their children.”

The Cash interview was part of Investigative Post’s “At Issue” series sponsored by William C. Bernhardi Law Offices, the M&T Bank Foundation, Talking Leaves Books, WGRZ and The Public.

The next event is a trivia night scheduled for Tuesday, Nov. 10 at 7 p.m. at Brawler’s Deli, in basement of Pearl Street Grill, 76 Pearl St. Maryalice Demler of WGRZ hosts a fun night of trivia focused on local news, sports, weather and history. Tickets can be purchased online or at the door. We’ve also got a Facebook page for the event.

Jim Heaney and Steve Brown will discuss Kriner Cash and his reform agenda on Sunday’s edition of “Outrages & Insights,” which airs Sunday about 6:45 a.m. on WGRZ’s Daybreak. The discussion will be posted later Sunday on this website.