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Williams backtracks on charters Seeks moratorium on new local schools

Buffalo School Superintendent James A. Williams has taken a favorable view of charter schools during the first several years, saying they spawn innovation and provide healthy competition for traditional public schools.

But now, after a series of run-ins with local charter schools, he is asking for a state moratorium on the creation of new charter schools in Buffalo and its adjoining suburbs.

Williams' request is driving the tense relationship between charter and traditional schools to new levels of acrimony.

"It is a tragedy that Williams would attempt to deny this city a method of education that is working," said Corrine Cristofaro, executive director of the Western New York Charter School Coalition. "Shame on him. Shame on those who believe that their way -- even if it is broken -- should be the only way."

There are currently 16 charter schools in and around Buffalo that enroll 6,500 students. Two more groups are seeking permission to locate new schools on Buffalo's West Side next school year.

In a proposed letter to Merryl H. Tisch, chancellor of the state Board of Regents, Williams urges that "no additional charter schools be approved for the Buffalo City School District, nor approved in its adjoining suburbs to target Buffalo city students."

The letter, which Williams is asking the Board of Education to endorse, cites these reasons:

*Charter schools, which receive $71.7 million in transfer payments from the city school system, "continue to be a significant financial drain" on traditional schools.

*The Regents in 2004 said they would be concerned about granting new charters in school districts where more than 7.5 percent of a district's operating budget already goes to charter school payments. In Buffalo, that figure has reached 10 percent.

*The Regents in July approved the Health Sciences Charter School, which is scheduled to open just across the city line in the Town of Tonawanda in 2010 with an emphasis on preparing students for careers in health care. At the same time, less than a mile away, Buffalo's Riverside Institute of Technology will unveil a similar program. The charter school is a wasteful duplication, Williams said.

*Standardized test scores are rising substantially in Buffalo, and that improvement -- combined with the $1 billion school reconstruction program -- will make the city schools the equal of any other district.

But Cristofaro said it is "bad leadership quality" for Williams to seek a moratorium after previously expressing favorable views of charter schools.

"Why is he taking educational choices from our parents and our children?" she said. "Because his system does not work? Or, possibly, because someone or something must take the blame besides the obvious mishandling of government monies and educational organization practices."

Cristofaro said she received 22 calls in the last two days from parents unable to enroll their children in charter schools. For the first time, she said, there are waiting lists at all local charters.

Ralph R. Hernandez, president of the Buffalo Board of Education, said he supports Williams' call for a moratorium and that the request will be discussed in committee before coming to the board for a formal vote.

The Buffalo Teachers Federation is in "strong agreement" with Williams' request, said BTF President Philip Rumore. He said he is asking unions involved in the Health Sciences Charter School to withdraw their support.

e-mail: psimon@buffnews.com

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