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Cost of charter schools detailed Buffalo district losing $32.8 million a year

Charter schools are costing the Buffalo Public Schools $32.8 million a year, even after savings are factored in, the district's chief financial officer said Wednesday evening.

The analysis by district CFO Gary Crosby was designed to answer a crucial question in the debate over charter schools, and was hailed as the most comprehensive look yet at the financial impact Buffalo's 15 charter schools are having on the traditional public school system.

"The [charter school] funding formula is draining this school district to the tune of $32 million every year," Crosby told the Board of Education. "We're trying to improve student achievement with at least one hand -- if not both hands -- tied behind our back."

About $51.5 million will be spent by the district this school year for state-mandated charter school transfer payments. Until Wednesday it was not specified how much of that the district recoups through savings realized by the loss of students to charter schools.

The report placed those savings at $18.7 million, meaning the net cost to the district is close to $33 million.

Crosby said he will use the report to try to convince Gov. George E. Pataki and the State Legislature to change the charter school funding law so that it does not harm Buffalo and other school districts.

Although the new analysis is likely to be challenged by charter school advocates, Crosby described it as fair, accurate and comprehensive.

"It's pretty bullet-proof as far as I'm concerned," he said. "Hopefully, it will eliminate any doubt that the formula is flawed and has to be revisited."

Crosby has been heavily lobbying for a new formula, but concedes that such a move does not appear imminent. He stressed that he does not oppose charter schools, but rather the way they are funded.

The report is also expected to play a prominent role in the Board of Education's decision early next year on whether to lift a one-year ban on the creation of district-sponsored charter schools. A committee headed by Catherine Collins, an at-large board member, is preparing a recommendation.

Donald A. Van Every, the board's North District representative, said Crosby's study shows that charter schools are a key factor in the district's financial distress. "The cost is far too clear for the children who remain [in traditional schools]," he said.

"Financially, we cannot afford to have two separate educational systems," said Ralph Hernandez, the West District representative.

Crosby said the district will make charter school transfer payments of about $51.5 million this school year, and that the cost will rise to $62.3 million next year, and to $78.9 million in 2007-08.

If the charter schools closed, Crosby estimated that 4,703 of their 5,599 students would enroll in the Buffalo Public Schools, and that the district would have to spend $18.7 million for teachers and other staff members, supplies and building needs.

Also on Wednesday, speakers said recent student violence at Lafayette High School and other city schools is due in considerable measure to deep staff cuts over the last five years.

"We cut assistant principals," said Sam Radford, a member of the Buffalo Local Action Committee. "We cut guidance counselors, attendance teachers, social workers. We created an environment that is unsafe."

Superintendent James A. Williams said he is working with Buffalo Teachers Federation President Philip Rumore and Crystal Barton, president of the union representing Buffalo principals, on plans to expand alternative programs for violent students.

The board also approved Williams' three-year academic improvement plan, which calls for an extended school year for elementary pupils whose work is below grade level in English.

e-mail: psimon@buffnews.com

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