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Wilmers calls for ‘radical’ change for Buffalo Public Schools, favors state takeover

WBFO News photo by Mike Desmond

Long-time Buffalo business leader Robert Wilmers delivered his "State of Public Education in Buffalo" Wednesday evening before a packed house inside the Montante Center on Main Street in Buffalo, hosted by Canisius College.  

Wilmers, M&T Bank Chairman and CEO, delivered a speech that was just over 30 minutes, followed by about an hours worth of questions from both WBFO'S Focus on Education reporter Eileen Buckley, who served as moderator, and the audience.

Wilmers suggested the best solutions to fix our failing city schools might be a state takeover or charter schools might be the only solutions to the city's failing district. 

"Those are really the only two viable alternatives that have been mentioned in the questions. So, charter Schools I'm supportive of charter schools," stated Wilmers. "Probably the best way at this point is to have either a state takeover or a  city takeover for the school system."

The invitation only event allowed questions written on cards.  Among those in the audience, higher education leaders, several Buffalo Board of Education members, including School Board President James Sampson and board member Larry Quinn.  There were also parents and other business leaders. Buffalo's regent representative Robert Bennett was also in attendance.

Wilmers called on the community to come together to fix failing city schools.  He delivered facts and stats on the failures and the cost of the Buffalo Public School District. 

Wilmers laid tough criticism on the city district.

"The bottom line is that we have allowed the leaders of a failing organization to perpetuate a system of failure and then question the poor performance of the masses afterward.  It is no surprise that the pipeline to academic success is narrow within the city of Buffalo," said Wilmers.

Questions from the audience ranged from how charter schools could help to what Wilmers.

"What we have today doesn't work and we need a radical change," stated Wilmers. 

Wilmers called for community schools and to stop bussing students out of their own neighborhoods. 

But Wilmers could not answer all questions with solutions.  At times he simply responded by saying "I'm not an educator, I'm a banker, who's had some exposure to the educational system. I've run into some numbers which I found applauding.  The Buffalo Public School system has got lot of rot in it and we've got to straighten and I don't know how to do it."

Many questions repeated themes of charter schools and seeking solutions. Finally, toward the end of the question and answer, Wilmers responded with a sense of frustration to not having all the answers for the audience.

"The more you pepper me with questions with a different slant, I think you're right to do it, and I feel inadequate e in giving you a clear answer," said Wilmers. 

Despite Wilmers lack of direct answers, the audience seemed to act favorably to Wilmers for having the courage to begin a conversation about how to repair a very broken school system. 

President of the District Parent Coordinating Council, Sam Radford, was an invited guest. He was pleased with Wilmers effort. Radford was not upset that Wilmers didn't have all the answers.

"But he is a banker, he is an investor," noted Radford.

Radford agreed with Wilmers to stop bussing children out of their neighborhoods.

"What sense does it make to put kids on the bus, and bus them across town from failing school to another failing school. It is absolutely crazy. I'm glad somebody had the courage to say it, said Radford.

Here is the full text of Wilmers speech:

The State of Public Education in Buffalo

Robert G. Wilmers

January 21, 2015

There has been an air of optimism in the city of Buffalo due to the sight of construction cranes dotting the skyline.  However, the health of our city’s public education system is in grave condition despite recent efforts to establish new and experienced leadership within the district.  Given the severity of problems facing Buffalo Public Schools, I am seriously concerned that any regional economic progress will be hindered since the majority of high school students lack the basic skills required to become contributing members of the workforce.

The continued failure of the Buffalo Public Schools, or BPS, to produce young people ready for college or a career is our city’s greatest barrier to continued economic development.  Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows an inextricable link between education levels and unemployment rates: specifically, individuals who do not graduate from high school experience an unemployment rate that is three times higher than their more educated peers. As the gap continues to grow between Buffalo’s workforce needs and the availability of locally educated employees with the skills to meet these needs, repairing our broken education system becomes increasingly important in determining the future stability of our region.

By many accounts, the pool of eligible members of our local workforce is constrained by low graduation rates.  The BPS student graduation rate in 2014 was 55%, a slight decline from the previous year of 56%.  Although it’s generally accepted that these statistics are evidence of a larger nationwide problem, do you realize that the city of Buffalo graduates a smaller percentage of its students than cities such as New Orleans, Baltimore, Cleveland, Newark and Detroit?

Further, 77% of Buffalo Public Schools are priority or focus schools. To say it differently, four out of every five Buffalo Public Schools are now failing, based on academic standards established by NYSED. Conversely, across New York State, approximately four out of every five schools are in good academic standing.  Buffalo’s resolution to this problem is seemingly to close existing buildings and reopen them with a new name, while simply reshuffling administration and the same students.  While this remedy may obtain a temporary seal of “good standing”, it ultimately fails to address the underlying problems.

Every child can thrive with the right teaching in the right environment. Like any community, Buffalo’s future is dependent on its children, as our children are dependent on us today.

By any yardstick, our Public School system has been in decline for a long period of time and today it must be considered a dismal failure – a failure that costs one billion dollars every year.

There are major systemic flaws which, if left unchecked, will continue to destroy any hope of improving academic performance and the outcomes of our students. 

In the Buffalo Public School district, there are over 8,000 high school-age students.  These students are separated by those who test into academically criteria-based institutions, or competitive high schools, of which there are four: City Honors, Olmsted, Hutch Tech and Leonardo DaVinci.  The remaining students attend what I’ll refer to as thirteen general admission high schools, of which twelve are considered failing based on the standards established by the New York State Education Department.  Given that only 2,300 students attended the four competitive high schools in the 2014 academic year, while over 6,000 attended the remaining thirteen general admission high schools, it is no surprise that our graduation rate over the past 10 years has averaged just 55%.

Given these groupings of students, on the surface it would seem that the problem is simply a capacity issue and that the solution would be to add more seats at the high-performing competitive schools.  However, when looking at the district’s standardized state test performance for incoming freshman students across the thirteen general admission high schools, shockingly 95% and 98% of student’s were not proficient, or able to test at grade level, in English Language Arts (ELA) and Mathematics respectively.  That means in some schools, there was only one incoming freshman student who was on grade level for English and Math.  And sadly, in some of those instances, it wasn’t even the same student.  This data clearly suggests that capacity of the facilities is not the issue.

As I contemplated this troubling student performance data, my first instinct was to consider the potential impact of test scoring under the state’s much maligned Common Core initiative.  However, after studying the longitudinal performance of this same incoming freshman class, it was apparent that last year’s standardized test scores were not an anomaly, but rather the continued effect of a lifetime of substandard education.

Analyzing historic test performance for incoming freshman at the general admission high schools shows that only 36% of these students were proficient in 3rd grade English Language Arts, and even that poor performance slowly eroded to 5% of the entire cohort by 8th grade.  Math scores were no different.  Last year’s general admission high school freshmen began 3rd grade with 57% of the group scoring at proficiency. But, as time amassed in the city’s schools, that number quickly deteriorated to only 2% of the entire cohort scoring at proficiency by the time they were dispersed to the city’s thirteen general admission high schools.  This correlation suggests that the longer students are in Buffalo Public Schools, the worse they ultimately perform.

Now, are there a number of factors impacting this decline in learning?  Of course there are.  Is there enough blame to share for parents, students, teachers and administration?  Most likely. 

However, by 9th grade no matter how much remediation is necessary, it is too late.  We cannot remediate hope for the student who has been passed along from elementary, to middle and now high school without regard for their individual retention.  How can you truly inspire a child to enter into an environment of high academic expectations when he or she is beset by low-levels of confidence and a history of subpar performance, and little to no motivation to achieve excellence?

Sadly, we haven’t found the answer to that question.  However, while some may criticize that it is easy to sit back and pass judgment, we at M&T Bank are continuously attempting to do our part to solve the problem.  Our involvement in public education began in 1993 when a partnership was formed between the former Buffalo Public School #68 and M&T Bank.  We are proud that in a span of three years, one of Buffalo’s worst performing schools became one of its best, and we eventually transformed the institution into Westminster Community Charter School.  Over the ensuing years, M&T has remained committed to this partnership by expanding the school’s physical assets, introducing an innovative curriculum, offering best-practice symposiums to educators from other school districts, and investing more than $21 million in education turnaround efforts in the city of Buffalo, with over $12 million at Westminster alone.  However, it’s important to note that while our commitment has not wavered, during this time period we have worked with eight different superintendents who have overseen the district.

Building upon this success, in 2011 we were honored to learn that we were one of only five out of 339 applicants across the entire country who received a Promise Neighborhood Grant from the United States Department of Education.  Since then we have leveraged that initial $6 million grant into more than $30 million of additional support by bringing to fruition a major initiative in Buffalo aimed at improving the lives of over 3,000 children living in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.  The Buffalo Promise Neighborhood includes Westminster Community Charter School and Highgate Heights Elementary School, as well as a new state-of-the-art Early Childhood Education Center named the Buffalo Promise Neighborhood Children’s Academy, which opened in September of 2013 and serves 120 infants, toddlers and pre-school children.  Further, we feel privileged to have been approved by the New York State Education Department to serve as the Educational Partnership Organization for Highgate Heights, which will enable us to accelerate reform efforts in this school.  All of these initiatives, intended to create a cradle-to-career pipeline, are ones in which I take the deepest possible personal interest, and  are a demonstration of the commitment that M&T Bank is as serious about achieving positive results in support of education improvements as we are about the business of the bank. 

Yet despite our commitment, we face serious challenges ahead.  As part of the Buffalo Promise Neighborhood initiative, we spent the last three years attempting to address the leadership challenges and performance problems at Bennett High School.  I can attest that after personally hiring three additional attendance teachers with the support of our city’s Mayor to ensure that there would be one person to cover each grade at Bennett, we were unable to better engage failing students who were no longer interested in the learning process. 

In the 2013 academic year, the problem of absenteeism was so severe at Bennett that, when counting all absences, 8 out of 10 students were considered chronically absent because they missed more than 10%, or 18 days, of the school year.  Studies have shown a direct correlation between students who are chronically absent and the increased likelihood of failing grades, poor performance and eventually dropping out of school altogether. Yet sadly, those 18 absences were on the low end for most chronically absent students.  Astonishingly, out of this 81% of chronic absentees, by the end of the school year, 45%, or nearly 1-in-2 students at Bennett had missed more than an entire marking period of school.  And this problem was not unique to Bennett.  At the other twelve general admission high schools, 67% of students were chronically absent with a similarly shocking 1-in-3 students having missed more than an entire marking period of school.

Clearly, when it comes to the issue of academic remediation, as born by the district’s stark absenteeism rates across the high school student body, I conclude that 9th grade is too late to make amends for years of educational mismanagement.  If we want to truly impact student outcomes and our city’s graduation rates we must begin much earlier in the educational process by capitalizing on performance in early childhood, pre-kindergarten  through fifth grade, and we must do whatever is necessary to not pass a student’s problems on to the middle grades and ultimately high school.

To that end, given the District’s uncertainty around the status of Bennett, we decided to reinvest our time and resources in reinforcing the importance of early childhood, elementary and middle school education.  We understand this significance firsthand because we have struggled at Westminster to keep pace with the challenge of implementing the Common Core standards at the rate expected by the NYSED.  As a result, the performance of our students, as well as the rest of the district, has trended downward as measured by students’ standardized test results in the new Common Core era. There are still serious challenges ahead.

However, we can be clear in this assessment: too many of the problems in our school system manifest in high school; therefore it is vital that we intervene earlier in the educational process.  Our focus must truly be on the progress of our youth, and that means focusing on the youngest students within our city’s school system, as well as their families.

Today, much is made of the need for increased parental involvement in the city’s schools.  In this regard, we must consider that community-based schools were historically the foundation from which neighborhoods, and therefore parental unity, evolved.  However, Buffalo schools do not fulfill that critical role today due in large part to faulty design.

Consider that at one of our Buffalo Promise Neighborhood initiative’s schools, Highgate Heights Elementary, this building of 485 students receives 17 busloads of children from outside the neighborhood each day.  Yet, there are enough school-age children within three blocks, or less than a half-mile, of the school to fill the building to capacity.  Further, there are 2,200 Pre-K through 12th grade students living within the one-square mile of Buffalo Promise Neighborhood, but these students do not attend Westminster, Highgate or Bennett.  Rather, these same 2,200 children are scattered to 56 Buffalo Public Schools and 20 Private, Charter and Parochial schools in the area.

One may surmise that the reason for this promotion of increased bussing is to support the Supreme Court ruling in Brown versus the Board of Education which desegregated schools 60 years ago.  However, today in Buffalo the overwhelming majority of students being transferred in and out of the neighborhood are entirely African-American children below the poverty level, given that 82% of all BPS students qualify for free and reduced lunch.  What purpose does sending children to failing schools on the other side of the city serve, other than to impede the efforts of parents who struggle with a lack of transportation and, therefore, are often unable to participate in school-based activities? 

Sadly, with 77% of the schools in the district failing, it is not as if the grass is greener on the other side of the fence.  Rather what we have done is purposefully design a system which fosters an additional impediment for families while continuing to deny their children the opportunity to enroll in a successful academic program.  This does little more than add to the additional stress of our parents by forcing them to annually reconsider the risks and perceived benefits of moving their children from one failing school to another, as opposed to promoting the sort of ownership and engagement that a community-based school model requires.

The bottom line is that we have allowed the leaders of a failing organization to perpetuate a system of failure and then question the poor performance of the masses afterward.  It is no surprise that the pipeline to academic success is narrow within the city of Buffalo.

Although now is the time to refocus on investing our resources in expanding the flow of progress for all of our city’s residents, when it comes to the source of that investment, I’m afraid the Buffalo Public School district is not capable of leading the way because the organization is wholly unsustainable.

One of the factors impacting the district’s poor financial performance is undeniably our region’s population decline and its subsequent impact on the school system as a whole.  Since 2000, while the population of Buffalo has declined 11%, the number of students in Buffalo Public Schools has declined by nearly 30%.  This equates to more than 13,000 students leaving the district over the last decade.  In other words, due to the attraction of charter schools and a general discontent with the quality and reputation of our city schools, among other factors, students are leaving Buffalo Public Schools at three times the rate of the city’s population decline.

Although the district has historically consolidated the number of school buildings, there is more to be done.  Based on the most recently published enrollment numbers, between 2007 and 2012 the number of buildings within BPS remained at 56 schools while the district lost 3,000 students, or the equivalent of two classrooms per school building. As a matter of sound fiscal management, taking the opportunity to further right-size the district based on the continued decline in student population should be one of the top priorities for a district in persistent financial distress. Instead, NYSED approved a $1.4 billion expenditure that has been spent over 10 years to reconstruct 48 schools and upgrade technology and energy efficiencies. 

When it comes to the problem of improving student outcomes, giving more money to the district is not the solution.  As of the 2012 academic year, BPS last reported spending $22,193 per student annually in total expenditures.  For comparison, consider that the Amherst Central School District spends $16,689 per student and had a four year total cohort graduation rate of 93% in 2012-13.  Buffalo Public Schools spends over $5,500 more per student and graduates only 56% of the four year cohort.    Since BPS began reporting this number in 2008, per pupil spending has increased by 30.5%, while the graduation rate has decreased by 3% over the same five-year period. This is a clear demonstration that the District’s poor performance is not a matter of inadequate funding.

Furthermore, Buffalo Public Schools now pay more retirees than active teachers per year.  This astounding fact seems preposterous when weighing the poor performance issues of any size organization, let alone a billion-dollar enterprise that has now shifted to paying more people who aren’t working than those who are. 

When considering the number of retirees versus active teachers in the district, in 2014 BPS reported that there were 3,922 retirees in the system as opposed to just 3,499 active teachers.  And if this imbalance wasn’t alarming enough, it comes at a cost of over $104.8 million dollars per year in retiree health insurance and pension contributions, or the equivalent of $3,199 per student.  This number is only projected to increase, with the gap between the number of retirees and active teachers increasing to nearly 1,000 more retirees than teachers over the next four years. This is because BPS projects to have approximately 4,300 paid retirees by 2017 while projecting to keep the number of active teachers the same.

Is there any wonder why the district projects a cumulative deficit of over $52 million dollars over the next four years?  Not when the biggest loss-drivers are, understandably, retiree health insurance and pension contribution.  However, if this projected deficit was not condemning enough, the final nail is driven home by the fact that when the district commissioned an actuarial study to project the total impact of this retiree imbalance, according to their 2013 financial statements, BPS will face accumulated liabilities of $1.9 BILLION dollars in post-employment benefits, all of which are currently unfunded.

When considering the overwhelming sum of these factors, the bottom line is clear: if our city truly expects to leverage the economic opportunities afforded to us through reinvigorated investments in job growth and infrastructure, then we must face the challenges that threaten to ruin our public education system by partnering with public and private leaders to evoke positive, sustainable change.  While the United Nations appropriates one billion dollars annually to support peace keeping activities around the world, the Buffalo Public School District spends approximately the same amount to operate an indebted school district that produces dismal outcomes year-after-year.  These poor results must change.

The school system is in need of radical change. Incremental experiments are not good enough. We must do whatever it takes to accomplish the results our students deserve. We have to scrutinize every aspect of the system, including the work M&T has done.

Therefore, we can no longer afford the luxury of critiquing a shared public system without taking the time to lend our individual talents and attention to addressing its problems. My hope is that we can come together to establish a bold and innovative approach to reforming education in the Buffalo Public Schools and thus improve the future outlook for our children and our community.

The future of our children, and the city of Buffalo itself, is in our hands. It is imperative that we act and that we act now.

Thank you.

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