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Olean City School District will have to evaluate Archbishop Walsh under new state mandate School leaders call review 'embarrassing,' a 'burden'

Mon, Apr 8th 2019 03:00 pm

By TOM DINKI, Olean Times Herald

OLEAN — Olean City School District and Archbishop Walsh Academy officials say Olean is big enough for both of them.

The 2,000-student public school district and 190-student private, Catholic school’s relationship is a positive and collaborative one devoid of any competition over students, according to administrators, who claim that won’t change with a new mandate that forces public school districts to evaluate the private schools within their borders.

“Tom and I won’t let that happen,” said OCSD Superintendent Rick Moore about himself and Thomas Manko, president and principal of Archbishop Walsh and Southern Tier Catholic School. “It’s more embarrassing than anything, but it’s something we have to do.”

“I wouldn’t want to be in Superintendent Moore’s shoes,” Manko said.

The updated guidance from the New York State Department of Education requires public school districts to review the educational quality of their local independent and religious schools by the end of 2021 and then again every five years.

Specifically, public schools must determine if their private counterparts are meeting the state’s statutory requirement for substantial equivalency of instruction, according to the state. The mandate was made partly in response to allegations that Orthodox Jewish private schools in New York City are failing to provide a basic, secular education.

“The process should be a collaborative effort that is a mutually beneficial learning process for leaders of both public and nonpublic schools resulting in appropriate educational opportunities for the children they serve,” said state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia when announcing the mandate last fall.

However, there’s been plenty of pushback from private school leaders across the state.

The New York State Council of Catholic School Superintendents, which represents 500 Catholic schools, has directed diocesan schools to boycott the reviews, while the New York State Association of Independent Schools even filed a lawsuit last month to disallow the reviews.

The lawsuit says the evaluations present a conflict of interest, as public schools will essentially decide whether the private schools they compete for students with can continue to operate. If a private school was found out of compliance, students who continued to attend the school would be declared truant, according to the state Education Department.

Manko said he doesn’t have those concerns, calling Moore and the OCSD “fair” and “sincere,” but that doesn’t mean he agrees with the review.

He said the evaluations should be conducted by the state Education Department so that all private schools are judged by the same criteria and another “burden” is not placed on public schools.

“That’s (the state Education Department’s) job. Don’t give Rick and his people yet one more unfunded mandate because there’s no money behind it. Olean is not getting paid to do this,” he said.

Based on a memo he received, Manko believes only Southern Tier Catholic School, the kindergarten-through-eighth-grade portion of the Archbishop Walsh campus, is subject to review.

While still holding out hope the state will reverse course, Manko said he has no plans on boycotting the review from the OCSD.

“I’m going to prepare myself and this school the best I can so that whichever way that needle falls, we’re going to be ready,” he said.

It was not immediately clear whether the other private school in Olean — New Life Christian School — plans to cooperate with the review. Officials from the non-denominational school of about 75 students that operates out of the former North Hill Elementary School building, did not return a request for comment.

Moore said he doesn’t plan on being overly demanding on either Archbishop Walsh or New Life. 

“Obviously I have to fulfill the mandate, but we’re not going to be intrusive or anything like that,” said Moore, adding he might provide them with a self-survey. “We know each other. If there was a problem, I’d hear about it, probably. And we don’t foresee any big problems.”

He added the OCSD and Archbishop Walsh have “always been really close,” despite what could appear to be a competitive dynamic as the public school and largest private school in the city.

“Different schools are better for different students. There’s no one school that’s great for all kids so it’s kind of nice. There's some choice. I think it works well,” he said.

Manko, who was a public school superintendent for 21 years before joining Archbishop Walsh in 2014, said he’s had open lines of communication with both Moore and former superintendent Dr. Colleen Taggerty.

He noted the OCSD has made Walsh part of its planned Academy of Excellence, which will provide OCSD students with more guidance and resources for earning college credit while still in high school. Manko said he’s even proposed allowing OCSD students to take some of Archbishop Walsh’s International Baccalaureate courses, which offer college credit.

But could the upcoming review put stress on an otherwise positive relationship?

“I think generally throughout the state, yes, that possibly exists,” Manko said. “Am I concerned about it happening here? No. We’ll work through anything.”

(Contact reporter Tom Dinki at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter, @tomdinki)

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