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Schools to boost funds for charters ; Reimbursement rate to rise to state level

Buffalo Public Schools officials say they will pay local charter schools in January the reimbursement amount that the charters have been expecting since July.

The public schools have been paying charter schools $10,429 per student, rather than the $12,005 that the state set last summer.

"We've agreed we'll make the higher payment," said Barbara J. Smith, the district's chief financial officer.

Charter schools hailed the decision.

At South Buffalo Charter School, officials will get $750,000 in retroactive payments.

"It means a great deal -- for a small school like ours. It is not chump change," said Carrie A. Dzierba, head of schools at the charter school of more than 650 students. "It's a godsend, it really is."

Her school cut back this year on everything from field trips to copy paper. It also trimmed a few positions from the payroll. With the increased funding from the public schools, some of those resources will be reinstated, she said. But with uncertainty surrounding state aid for the coming year, school officials, she added, will think carefully about restoring positions.

"This was something that made us really examine where we are and made us more efficient and smarter," Dzierba said. "I think we will look at a couple of those positions being reinstated. But it's really just about trying to be smart about what we're doing."

While charter schools celebrate the anticipated money they have said for months is rightfully theirs, Buffalo Public Schools officials struggle to figure out how to come up with millions for which they did not budget.

Smith relied on the lower charter reimbursement rate when she put together this year's budget. Having to pay the higher rate will leave the district with an $11.3 million shortfall this year, she said. The district also faces a shortfall of about the same amount related to state-level decisions about employee pensions.

Superintendent James A. Williams has asked Smith and her staff to prepare a midyear budget modification to account for the gap of more than $22 million. That plan likely will be presented to the Board of Education next month and will be subject to approval from the Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority.

Charter schools receive a portion of the aid that the state provides public school districts for each student going to a charter school, using a formula that's based on how much each particular district spent two years earlier.

But the state does not send the money directly to the charter schools. The money passes through the school district in which each student lives. Every two months, the charter schools bill the school districts, using the per-student amount established by the state Education Department.

Charter funding levels were frozen last year. The freeze was widely expected to remain in effect for the current school year, but Gov. David A. Paterson inadvertently lifted the freeze this summer when vetoed thousands of measures.

Buffalo Public Schools officials said they received assurances from state budget officials in July that the State Legislature would reinstate the freeze. For months, the district stood firm, paying charters the lower amount even while all other local districts were paying charters the higher reimbursement rate.

Board members were not aware that the district was paying the charters the lower amount until October, when Dzierba and the president of her board wrote a piece that appeared on the opinion pages of The Buffalo News.

A few days later, Ralph R. Hernandez, board president, and Christopher Jacobs, an at-large member, brought the issue before the board, which voted to hire an outside attorney to research the issue of whether the district was violating state law by not paying charters the higher amount.

The district never did hire an outside attorney.

Until recently, district officials continued to harbor hope that the State Legislature would overturn Paterson's veto and reinstate the funding freeze for charter schools.

That never happened.

After the Assembly failed to take up the issue of charter funding in late November, district officials apparently accepted the state's failure to reinstate the freeze for the current year.

In recent days, Williams has assured charter schools that the district's next payment will consist of the higher amount. Next month, the district will pay the balance owed for the first half of the fiscal year, Williams said.

"Payment will be made on Jan. 7," he said.

The biggest retroactive payment, more than $1 million, will go to the Charter School for Applied Technologies in the Town of Tonawanda, the largest charter school in the state. The payment will enable the school to avoid dipping into its reserve funds.

"Better sense prevailed," said J. Efrain Martinez, superintendent of the Charter School for Applied Technologies. "I am glad that the board is going to follow the guidelines and that they decided to do so in a cordial and straightforward, simple way. I am very happy."