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Maritime is cited for tampering on Regents

The Maritime Charter School, which prides itself on military-style discipline, has been cited by the state for tampering with student answer sheets on Regents math exams given last June and August.

In at least 21 cases, answer sheets "included a minimum of four and as many as ten questions for which an incorrect response to a multiple-choice question had been replaced with a correct answer," the state found.

Results on the algebra and geometry exams have been expunged, and students will have to retake them in order to earn credit.

Also, the Erie 1 Board of Cooperative Education Services is now monitoring math Regents exams at Maritime, a 300-student high school on Genesee Street near Michigan Avenue.

New York State United Teachers points to the test scoring issue -- and previous irregularities at Maritime -- as evidence that the state's charter school laws provide inadequate oversight and monitoring.

"We don't know if there are more Maritimes out there, and we won't know until there's real transparency and accountability," said Richard C. Iannuzzi, NYSUT president. "The current law lacks that."

But charter school officials were "just shocked" by the Regents scoring incident, which was detailed in a November letter from the state Education Department, said Lawrence W. Astyk, the school's commandant, or principal.

The two staff members responsible for administering the test have resigned, and the problem was first brought to light by Maritime math teachers, not the state, he said.

"It was our teachers who reported it," Astyk said. "I'm so proud of them. These are very brave people."

But the exam tampering is just the latest of a series of problems to surface at Maritime since it opened in 2004. They include:

The misappropriation of $95,000 from 2005 to 2007 that led to the resignation of three school employees and a jail term for one. The school recovered the funds through an insurance claim.

*Inadequate safeguards that led to the hiring of an administrator with a criminal record.

*The inability to account for nearly $10,000 in federal grants.

*A report of fraudulent use of funds belonging to the school's parent-teacher group. School officials investigated that claim and found that it was "difficult if not impossible" to reach a firm conclusion.

Prior to the Regents exam findings -- but after the other incidents -- the school got a four-year license renewal in January from the state Board of Regents.

That approval was based on a staff recommendation stating that Maritime "faced and met many challenges," had "learned from its experiences" and proactively developed a reform plan to address it weaknesses.

The renewal praises Astyk, who became commandant in 2007.

"The school's leadership and governance have evolved in a positive manner, with a great deal of respect being accorded to the current commandant, whose leadership and consistency of purpose have helped the school to evolve in a positive manner," the Regents said.

Donald A. Ogilvie, superintendent of the Erie 1 BOCES, headed the state investigation of the Regents test tampering.

He said Wednesday that Maritime's handling of the exams represented "almost fundamental mismanagement of test administration" and that "the students really paid the price."

Ogilvie said he considered recommending revoking the school's charter, but did not.

"When I saw the commitment to admit to the faults and the lack of safeguards, I felt this was a team that could pull the school up by its bootstraps," Ogilvie said.

At the same time, Ogilvie said, the case indicates that "enthusiasm and commitment" cannot replace "technical competence and experience as educational leaders."

Iannuzzi, the NYSUT president, contended that Maritime's record illustrates severe weaknesses in the state's system for monitoring and licensing charter schools.

He said Maritime's relicensing after the series of incidents shows that the state review process "moves [charter schools] through the system as if nothing happened."

In addition, improprieties would be "uncovered much more rapidly" at traditional public schools, which have elected schools boards, public budget votes and other safeguards, Iannuzzi said.

He said Maritime's experiences bolster NYSUT's call for changes in the state charter school law that would, among other things, subject charter schools to the same audits and disclosure requirements as traditional public schools; require charters to serve special education and English as a Second Language students; and provide fiscal relief to school districts -- including Buffalo -- that are "saturated" with charter schools.

Angelo A. Conorozzo, president of Maritime's board of trustees, said the school's problems were due to the complexities of building a school from scratch.

"We weren't experienced administrators of a school system," he said. "We perhaps were not as diligent as we should have been. But we didn't wait. We didn't hesitate. We acted swiftly and made changes. We've learned some hard lessons. We're better for it."

For example, Conorozzo said, the misappropriation of $95,000 was uncovered and pursued by school officials. "We saw the irregularities, and we started an investigation," he said. "Our safeguards worked. Our auditor caught them and brought them to our attention, and we followed up."

NYSUT is also critical of Maritime for expelling 16 students since the start of the school year. Traditional public schools cannot expel students, creating an uneven playing field in terms of student population, the union claims.

But Astyk said Maritime enrolled 32 students since September from traditional Buffalo public schools, many of whom had behavior problems.

"We gave them back 16," he said. "We took in 32. It's all of our jobs to give students an opportunity."

Maritime's problems should not mask the opportunities the school provides its students, 89 percent of whom are minorities and 75 percent of whom are poor, said Astyk, a retired Marine Corps officer. They wear military-style uniforms, stand when school officials enter the room and are held to a strict code of discipline.

On a tour of the school this week, Astyk pointed out clean and orderly classrooms and hallways, trophies won recently by the school's drill and rifle teams, and honor and merit rolls that are getting larger.

Recent graduates are attending Seton Hall, Pittsburgh, Penn State, UB and Tuskegee, he said. Three Maritime grads earned full Navy ROTC scholarships. "We've had some growing pains, but I think we've made unbelievable strides here," he said. "A track record [of problems] is a track record, but it shouldn't be looked at in a vacuum. I think we're doing a fabulous job."

Maritime officials suggest that NYSUT's criticism springs from the decision of Maritime teachers to not affiliate with the statewide teachers union following a year of negotiations.

Iannuzzi denied any retribution.

"We didn't create the [school's] record," he said. "They created the record. It has nothing to do with anything NYSUT did."

e-mail: psimon@buffnews.com

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