Today, at the Fillmore Avenue office of the Citizen Action Organization (CAO), the President of the District Parent Coordinating Council (DPCC) announced three new civil rights complaints that will be filed by parents of Buffalo public school children with the US Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR).
Sam Radford has been calling for a federally appointed Special Master who would posses the governance authorities of both a school board and a Superintendent simultaneously.
Radford is the director of the CAO’s “Better Schools, Better Neighborhoods” initiative and, in political circles, has been rumored to be a potential contender for State Senate next year.
He strongly denies his interest in public office, but his willingness to oppose the teachers’ unions has attracted the attention of Governor Andrew Cuomo, operatives say.
It’s rumored that Cuomo has been looking for candidates to challenge the Buffalo-area Senate Democrats who are backed heavily by the New York United Teachers (NYSUT) and aligned sharply against the Governor: Senators Marc Panepinto and Tim Kennedy.
The prospect of a Radford candidacy has Kennedy particularly worried, given his sometimes difficult relationship with the sizable African American population in his district, which includes the Eastside, Cheektowaga, and South Buffalo.
The rumors come at a time when the new Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie has been under pressure from minorities to ensure that poor families have access to greater measures of school choice. Former Speaker Sheldon Silver was less beholden to the black, Latino, and Asian caucuses of the Assembly. Observers are watching closely whether the Speaker will side with the interests of minority children or the state’s influential teachers’ unions.
Radford noted that he plans on lobbying Heastie on this issue personally.
“We are supporting parents who have filed federal complaints that are trying to force the District to come into compliance with the law,” Redford said.
Parents — backed by Radford and the DPCC — will be amending a pending complaint already filed with the US Department of Education’s OCR relating to the admissions criteria established at the district’s high performing schools.
Parents say that the system manifests stark racial segregation.
The three new civil rights complaints relate to the district’s provision of services for students with learning disabilities, for students who are english language learners, and for a staggering level of student suspensions.
“Parents have been raising concerns for the past 10 years. For a long time parents have been ignored. [District administrators] said that our complaints are untrue, and our voices have been drowned by powerful union influence,” Radford said, clearly angry and passionate about the issue. “The truth is that 50% of our children are not graduating.”
Parents are enraged that the district has refused to transfer students to schools in good standing, which is a right guaranteed under the federal Bush-era law, No Child Left Behind.
“We filed a complaint with the OCR and they came back and said, ‘you’re right, parents!” Redford explains. “They came back and froze $36 million in federal funds.”
Radford pointed to a recent Buffalo News article about a young student who has failed grade six three times — and was then placed in the same school with the same teachers for two additional years, despite an impossible relationship with those teachers and making no academic progress.
“They broke the law, which caused the child to fall further behind,” Redford explained, clearly angry with the teachers’ unions. “He had a right to transfer to a school in good standing — under federal law! The federal government says that a lack of capacity is not an excuse!” “There has been constant non-movement by the district,” he said. “It needs to change, now.”
Radford was joined by Bryon McIntyre and Willie Green — two familiar faces in local politics and influential members of the city’s activist community. They were joined by Patricia Elliott-Patton, the parent who filed the original civil rights complaint relating to discriminatory admissions policies at the city’s criterion schools.
When asked about the union, Radford said “We are not pro-union or anti-union; we’re pro-children.”
When asked whether he would prefer a state receivership or a federal receivership, Redford conceded that there are political realities that he has to deal with over the last decade, which he says he has learned from.
“The unions are very powerful in Albany and the political reality is that they can stall anything in the State Legislature,” he said.
Katrinna Martin-Bordeaux, the influential community activist who has organized the Eastside’s political power structure around education issues in recent months was also in attendance.
“Until we address the central issue of racial segregation, we are not going to solve this issue. We need to be looking at a metropolitan school district,” she said to the applause of those in attendance.
Mrs. Martin-Bordeaux is concerned that a federal or state receivership will render parents and the community even more powerless. She sees the school board as the only measure of participatory input in the district’s governance structure. Without it, there would be no mechanism through which the community could apply political pressure on the district’s leadership.
She is a registered nurse by profession and notes that she is not a member of the teachers’ unions. She has been an active and aggressive voice on education issues in recent months. Last summer, she organized the eastside in a spirited primary campaign that she managed against Congressman Brian Higgins — which has powerful figures in the political community following her political activities closely.
“Receivership is the last trump card. After we use it, we have nothing else left to influence the governance of our schools,” she explained to reporters.
Some political observers have speculated that School Board member Carl Paladino’s strategy could be to drive the district into receivership.