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Cash open to charters to fix struggling Buffalo schools

Buffalo School Superintendent Kriner Cash says he is open to the idea of working with charter school organizations to operate some of the district’s most chronically struggling schools.

But any such organization would have to take all of the children enrolled in the schools it wants to manage, not just siphon off the best students.

“That’s the key piece for me,” Cash said. “I’m not disparaging anything, but if you cherry-pick the kids, then it’s a different kind of population you’re working with.”

Cash also was clear that he’s not talking about private schools.

“I want public school education for all of our children,” he said.

The concept is in the information-sharing stage, Cash said.

The local Cullen Foundation, which works to improve education, reached out to him, and in subsequent conversations, representatives from the foundation said it had done some research on two or three charter school management organizations.

If discussions proceed far enough down the road, and if it’s a good match for Buffalo, Cash said he will discuss any such plans with School Board members.

But, he added, he has the authority to implement such an idea without board approval.

“Under my receivership powers, I could do something like this,” said Cash, who presented the idea at a recent meeting with The Buffalo News editorial board. He also said he plans to visit all 17 charter schools in Buffalo by January 2017. He has visited four so far.

Cash’s interest in charter schools was welcomed by a member of the School Board’s former majority, which actively promoted charters as an answer to the district’s problems.

“It’s the only answer,” said Park District representative Carl P. Paladino.

Paladino was part of the former board majority that campaigned to expand high-performing charter schools to increase the options available to parents and their children.

The former majority – which became the minority after the May 2016 elections – wanted to actively recruit high performing charters by offering space in vacant school buildings, letting them share space in current district schools and offering an enhanced charter reimbursement formula. But the plan did not get much traction, Paladino said, largely because former Superintendent Pamela Brown and then interim Superintendent Donald A. Ogilvie did not buy into it.

“We were looking at Success Academy and having them come in and run some of our schools,” Paladino said of the New York City charter school network. “There are many success stories across the country. We tried for awhile there to encourage it, obviously beating our heads against the wall because Brown, and Ogilvie afterward, were opposed and undermined us.”

But Paladino is encouraged by Cash’s idea and expects the plan to get more traction under the superintendent’s leadership.

“He’s a little more open-minded about it because he’s seen success of charter education,” Paladino said. “I think there’s a majority onboard that will stand behind him on his efforts to charter off some of our more difficult schools to handle.”

“Any alternative to the existing system is good because it’s going to create growth,” said At-large Board Member Larry Quinn, also part of the former majority that backed charter schools as an alternative.

Board President Barbara A. Seals-Nevergold said she realizes that state education law allows the superintendent to move as the receiver to make certain specific changes, but she would like to hear more about what the superintendent actually means.

“What is he talking about? And then secondly, I would expect the superintendent’s first communication would occur with the School Board,” Nevergold said. “To me, that’s part of what we are responsible for. For him not to bring it to the School Board is a matter of courtesy, but I think it’s beyond that. It’s not appropriate.”

Without knowing the specifics, Nevergold said the idea of contracting with charter organizations to manage entire schools seems different than what Cash had indicated to the School Board when members interviewed him for the superintendent’s job last year.

Back then, Nevergold said, Cash’s position was that he was not diametrically opposed to charters, but he also was not pushing charter schools because they have as much variance in their success as do traditional public schools.

“Yes, there are some good charter schools and some that are not so good. I thought he was clear he was not one to promote charter schools as the answer for a problem,” Nevergold said. “This seems like a shift from what I’ve understood his position.”

Cash told The News on Monday that he is “always looking for options that will help our students to grow and to thrive.”

Buffalo has some experience in converting its traditional public schools.

Back in 1993, the school district embarked on a partnership with M&T Bank that eventually led to the conversion of a traditional public school into a charter school. It started when M&T Bank partnered with School 68 – one of the lowest-performing schools in Buffalo – to improve achievement. The school was renamed Westminster Community School two years later.

Then, a decade ago, the Board of Education converted it into Westminster Community Charter School. In 2011, M&T launched Buffalo Promise Neighborhood to run Westminster and since then, state math and reading assessments for third- through eighth-grade students have shown some gains.

Eight other charter schools in the state have been converted from district schools, according to state education officials. The last one was Future Leaders Institute Charter School in 2004 in Manhattan.

email: dswilliams@buffnews.com

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