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REGENTS APPROVE CHARTER SCHOOL
WESTMINSTER IS FIRST TO CONVERT IN BUFFALO

A unanimous vote of the state Board of Regents on Wednesday cleared the way for Westminster Community School to open its doors in September as Buffalo's first conversion charter school.

While the plan has been highly controversial here, the Regents' vote in Albany followed a brief discussion in which Westminster was widely praised for raising test scores dramatically over the last decade with the help of $10 million from M&T Bank, according to a spokesman for the Regents.

The conversion charter status will allow Westminster Community Charter School to avoid another round of Board of Education budget cuts. At the same time, it will be able to retain its current pupils, remain in its building at 24 Westminster Ave., keep the teachers who choose to remain there and operate with much greater independence and flexibility, bank officials said.

"We are gratified that the Board of Regents voted unanimously to approve our application and to protect the school, its teachers and its students," said Mark J. Czarnecki, an M&T executive vice president and chairman of the Westminster Community School Partnership. "Now we can focus all of our attention on preparations for the new school year, and we can get back to our ongoing efforts to help educate the children."

The plan to convert Westminster from a traditional public school to a publicly funded charter school was approved by the Buffalo Board of Education by a 6-2 vote in June. It needed final approval from the Regents.

Philip Rumore, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation, had urged the Regents to reject the proposal, claiming it would allow Westminster to reject special-education students applying for admission and to remove those already enrolled.

M&T officials said the school will be made accessible to people in wheelchairs, helping Westminster better serve disabled youngsters.

"It's a sad day for the students of the City of Buffalo," Rumore said Wednesday. "It's a big mistake and one I think the district will regret."

Ralph Hernandez, the Board of Education's West District representative, also has raised questions about the plan. He could not be reached to comment.

M&T officials claim the conversion will immediately save money for the Buffalo Public Schools.

But Gary Crosby, the district's chief financial officer, said the conversion will add $1.7 million to the school system's 2004-05 budget gap. He said it will continue to cost the district money until the loss of students to charter schools allows administrators to close traditional public schools or reduce the number of classes at remaining schools.

Overall, the Buffalo Public Schools will make payments of $42.1 million to 15 charter schools next year, and those payments will grow to $74.8 million in 2008-09, the Regents projected.

Crosby, who has initiated a broader study of charter school costs, said those figures are "in the ballpark."

e-mail: psimon@buffnews.com

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