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Board balks at closing more than two schools Vote puts Buffalo at risk for funding of reconstruction project's final phase

The final $250 million phase of Buffalo's school reconstruction project was put in jeopardy Wednesday night when the Board of Education voted to close two schools but turned down a proposal by administrators to close another.

In addition, Superintendent James A. Williams, faced with stiff opposition to the package, pulled from the agenda a motion to close a fourth school.

The proposal to shut down three schools for the 2009-10 school and another after that school year was designed not only to reduce excess capacity and save money, but to persuade the state to pick up 97 percent of the cost of the fifth and final phase of the reconstruction project.

Instead, Williams and his top aides questioned if the board's vote would satisfy the state, which is requiring the district to close unneeded schools in return for continued funding of the $1 billion reconstruction project. The final phase -- which may now be in question -- would make about $250 million of improvements at eight schools.

"We're going to have to come up with another school [to close]," Williams said after the board vote. "We'll go back to the drawing board."

Gary M. Crosby, the school systems' chief financial and operations officer, said he had "an informal green light" from the state Education Department that closing four schools would keep the project on track.

"I don't have that confidence now," he said after the vote. "I'm just not sure. We still have too much capacity. We still have one school too many."

After a long and heated discussion, the board voted to close Poplar Academy School 11, 100 Poplar Ave., and reassign the pupils there to Harvey Austin School, which is about a mile away on Sycamore Street.

It also agreed to close the Charles R. Drew Science Magnet School's zoo site and move its pupils to the Museum Magnet School. Those moves are designed to save $689,000.

However, the board rejected a proposal to close Community School 53, 329 Roehrer Ave., after the 2009-10 school year. The vote was 6-2, with one abstention.

In addition, Williams pulled from the agenda a plan to close Academy School 44 in an apparent effort to make the package more palatable.

East District board member Vivian O. Evans fought unsuccessfully to save School 11, which is in her district.

"It's obvious this board doesn't care about that community," she said. "Because I cry for equity, my school is being closed."

Pamela D. Perry-Cahill criticized the administration's rationale for targeting School 53, which is in the Ferry District she represents.

"I'm just not buying that at all," she said. "There's just a lot of mess going on here."

Crosby said he will speak soon with state Education Department officials to determine if the board's action is sufficient to keep the reconstruction project on track.

District officials say they have excess capacity of at least 2,600 seats, and that -- without school closings -- that excess would swell to almost 6,000 seats by 2018-19.

e-mail: psimon@buffnews.com

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