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Elmwood Village Charter School gets nod as debate over funding formula continues

Organizers with Buffalo's newest charter school say the state's funding formula should change so that money for the alternative schools does not come from the city school system.

The Elmwood Village Charter School, slated to open in September with 125 students, was approved unanimously Friday by the state Board of Regents. Approval came after a vigorous debate among top education officials over whether Buffalo's 16 charter schools are too much of a drain on the city school system.

But backers of Elmwood Village insist they have the school system's best interests at heart. They say the state funding formula should be altered to provide charter schools money without hurting school system.

"I love the public schools. It breaks my heart. I feel sorrowful that some of the money has to come from the district, and I wish the funding formula didn't have to be to the extent that it is coming from the district," said Marguerite Battaglia-Evans, an organizer of the Elmwood Village Charter School.

Short of the school system opening its own charter school -- as it has in two cases -- Elmwood Village could be the last charter school approved in Buffalo.

That's because the cap on charter schools -- 50 schools statewide approved by the Regents and 50 by the State University of New York -- will be reached next month. While there has been lobbying to get the Legislature to raise the ceiling, the issue is expected to prompt a bitter fight next year in Albany between pro-charter school advocates and opponents.

The Elmwood Village school will get about $8,700 from the school system for each student it enrolls. That would rise from $1 million in the beginning to at least $1.5 million when the school grows to 175 students by its third year.

The state provided about $14,000 per pupil to the Buffalo schools as of the 2003-04 school year, according to the most recent data available from the state Education Department.

By next year, the charter schools in Buffalo will end up absorbing 12 percent of the city school system's budget -- a level that many top officials, including state Education Commissioner Richard Mills, say is too high.

Mills, along with Regent Arnold Gardner of Buffalo, as well as Buffalo School Superintendent James A. Williams, urged the Regents to reject the Elmwood Village application.

In an unusual decision, the top education officials found themselves rebuffed Thursday by an influential committee of the Regents, which sided with Regents Chancellor Robert Bennett and the Elmwood Village promoters in a 4-1 vote.

The full Board of Regents on Friday, without debate, approved the charter.

The Elmwood Village critics said the school system does not save anywhere near what it loses in financial aid when one of its traditional-school students transfers to a charter school.

"You can't fund half a school bus or cut back in proportion to the costs you pay out to the charter school," said Gardner, who was not at Friday's full board meeting to cast a "no" vote against the Elmwood Village application. He said the fiscal dilemma is "the result of our having a very bad charter school law."

Others, however, say school districts do save eventually by having charter schools and that the traditional schools should not be expected to get the same level of state aid after losing students to charter schools.

The Regents for several years have unsuccessfully urged the governor and lawmakers to set aside a separate pot of money for charter schools.

In Buffalo's case, about 5,500 students are enrolled in charter schools, and officials expect that to grow to more than 9,000 students by 2008.

Bennett, who pushed the Elmwood Village application against the advice of the state's education commissioner, said the state should consider a targeted "impact fund" to help systems -- especially in Buffalo and New York City -- that have seen a rush to charter schools.

Williams, who started as Buffalo superintendent in July, said he opposed the Elmwood Village application, in part, because the state should have recognized the new leadership in the school system.

"I think the system should be given an opportunity to improve under the new leadership. I want to stabilize the system," he said Friday.

e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com

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