Suburban districts cool to plan for taking Buffalo transfer students - The Buffalo News

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Suburban districts cool to plan for taking Buffalo transfer students

Some Erie County suburbanites have expressed concerns about the possibility of a flood of city students coming to their school districts as a result of the Buffalo Public Schools’ student transfer plan, which would enable students from underperforming city schools to attend better ones.

Some suburban superintendents also are cool to the idea, saying they have their own challenges.

But Buffalo school officials say they don’t anticipate a mass exodus of hundreds of city school children to suburban schools. And if transfers do occur, they aren’t going to happen right away. The idea is to start the planning process now for possible transfers that wouldn’t happen for months.

“We’re looking at this as an option, but it’s not the primary option,” said Will Keresztes, the district’s chief of student support services who is overseeing the transfer plan.

The primary options for accommodating most of the student transfer requests are opening two new city schools, and closing and reopening two existing schools under new educational models or governance structures. Those two options alone could accommodate more than 1,400 students over the next two years, Keresztes said.

“The suburbs are not going to solve this problem for Buffalo,” he said. “Buffalo has to have a comprehensive plan for solving this problem.”

Still, some suburban superintendents seemed to throw cold water on the idea of taking in any Buffalo students. They said they have challenges of their own to deal with, such as declining enrollments, lost state aid and program cutbacks.

They’re also likely wondering about details of any transfer plan, like what it would cost, how districts will be compensated, and how students would be transported from the city, said Donald Ogilvie, superintendent of Erie 1 BOCES, who has been called upon to be the point man between city schools and suburban districts.

Mark Mondanaro, superintendent of the Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda School District, said his district “probably would not” be available to help out city students because Ken-Ton is focusing on its own issues.

“We’ve been working for over five years to deal with a lot of reduction in enrollments. We closed an elementary school beginning this school year. And we’re in the midst of an intra-school consolidation projects ourselves,” Mondanaro said.

“In the end, that’s a board decision,” Dennis Kane, superintendent of the Cheektowaga Central School District, said of trying to accommodate Buffalo students. “We have to look at what it is that comes with the kid. Where’s the money coming from? There are transportation issues.”

He added, “We have to consider the financial considerations. We don’t have the resources to subsidize kids from other school districts.”

Keresztes said issues of funding out-of-district student transfers would clearly require some direction from the State Education Department.

The school choice debate comes in the wake of the Buffalo Board of Education’s approval Monday of a plan to transfer children out of underperforming schools. The state education commissioner must still approve the district’s plan.

The school choice plan provides for the transfer this fall of between 300 and 500 students – out of nearly 2,200 requests – from underperforming schools into other Buffalo schools in good standing with the state. It also requires the district to begin immediately reaching out to suburban school superintendents to see if they will accept Buffalo students from the 42 city schools the state has labeled as failing.

Buffalo schools had planned to pursue that option for the 2014-15 school year. However, state officials directed the district to look at it for the upcoming school year that begins in three weeks.

Buffalo school officials say the possibility of such suburban partnerships is only one aspect of a very broad plan to accommodate transfer requests, which reached a record high this summer.

Keresztes said he is confident the state will approve the district’s school choice plan, but the district does not intend to wait to begin reaching out to suburban superintendents. Buffalo officials are sending out letters as early as this week as part of the process of gauging whether partnerships with suburban school districts are possible.

“My objective is to eliminate any barriers that might exist to starting those transfers as soon as possible,” Keresztes said.

Ogilvie also reached out to various superintendents by email after the plan had been approved by the Buffalo School Board late Monday.

He has been charged with convening a meeting of suburban superintendents to determine their capacity and interest in offering seats to Buffalo students whose parents have chosen to have them transferred.

He said other districts might be reluctant to help out.

“They may say, ‘We have plenty to deal with already, and not through any lack of concern or passion, I’m feeling my own burden to keep my operation cost-effective and to keep the commitment to my community,’ ” Ogilvie said.

If all goes smoothly, which is far from a given, the Buffalo school district might be able to transfer interested students to suburban schools as soon as December, Keresztes said.

Suburban public schools are not the only out-of-district option for Buffalo students. Parochial and private schools may be, too.

It’s unlikely, though, that large numbers of city students would be transferred to private or parochial schools since the law prohibits a public school district from funding private school tuition, Keresztes said.

If, however, third-party scholarships could be made available to allow these students to be transferred to Catholic schools or other private schools, the district would consider that option, he said. Notre Dame Academy, for instance, has suggested that some seats may be available at its South Buffalo school.

Carol Kostyniak, the secretary for Catholic education for the Diocese of Buffalo, said the diocese would be happy to sit down and talk with Buffalo about the possibilities.

“We’re absolutely very willing to sit down and talk with them,” said Kostyniak, who oversees all Catholic education programs for the diocese. “We understand the situation and would be happy to help out in any way that is feasible for us and feasible for them.”

The Catholic diocese supports five elementary schools in the city and has suffered school closures and declining enrollment in recent years. These parochial schools have plenty of seats available, Kostyniak said, but probably limited scholarships for the upcoming school year.

She also stated that any parents interested in directly enrolling their child in a parochial school and inquiring about scholarship availability are welcome to do so.

Keresztes acknowledged that if the district partners with a parochial or private school, it would essentially be losing that child from the public school system. Even so, he said, the district would be willing to make that option available if that’s what parents want and it’s legally feasible.

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