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Da Vinci supporters urge board not to move school

Supporters of Leonardo da Vinci High School urged the Board of Education at its meeting Wednesday to keep their program right where it is: on the D'Youville College campus.

The superintendent has recommended moving the program into the nearby Grover Cleveland High School building when the district's lease with the college ends in 2013. He says ending the lease would save the district hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

The da Vinci supporters say such a move would be disastrous.

"Because da Vinci is located on a college campus -- that's what makes da Vinci work," Nelson Borges, a senior, told the board. "It is the reason so many of us are college-bound. Please do not disrupt one of the most successful programs in the district."

His mother told the board she was pleasantly surprised when she first saw the small classes, happy students and lack of violence at da Vinci.

"I have a daughter who wants to go to da Vinci, but I will refuse to let her go to Grover if they move [the da Vinci program] there. I would have to worry about her walking alone in the neighborhood," Sara Borges said.

She is not the only da Vinci parent inclined to opt out of the program if it moves.

Da Vinci parents said once they heard about the proposal to move the program, they sent out a survey to see what the effect of such a move would be.

Patricia Preston, the longtime da Vinci principal who retired in July, said outside the meeting that 99 parents indicated they would seriously consider pulling their children from da Vinci if it moved; about 400 students attend the school.

Michael R. Long Jr. has a daughter at da Vinci.

"It's a wonderful model," he said. "It affects her that she's on a college campus."

He and other parents complained that they learned about the proposal to move da Vinci only when they read about it last week in The Buffalo News. They said the district still has not provided them any information. Superintendent James A. Williams said he needed to present the plan to the board before discussing it with anyone else.

The small but popular program, housed in D'Youville's Madonna Hall, offers students the chance to take classes -- at no charge to them -- on the D'Youville campus after their regular school day ends. Tuition costs are rolled into the district's lease with the college. Da Vinci has one of the highest high school graduation rates in the district.

Williams has recommended moving da Vinci to Grover to save on the annual $810,806 lease payment to D'Youville.

He also wants to move to Grover the Middle College program, which now rents space for $496,510 a year from Carl Paladino in a building near Erie Community College City Campus, where Middle College students take some classes.

Two years ago, the district proposed moving the two programs into Grover, but fierce opposition from da Vinci families put the brakes on that plan. The board voted in June 2009 to authorize the administration to begin negotiating a new contract with D'Youville.

In discussions that ensued, college officials agreed to cut the lease cost.

Williams said after Wednesday's board meeting that a projected $21 million to $71 million budget shortfall in 2011-12 spurred him to again recommend moving the two programs to save on the leases. The International Prep program now housed at Grover would move to Harvey Austin School 97 on Sycamore Street under his proposal.

If the district does not cut costs by ending its leases for da Vinci and Middle College, Williams said, officials will have to cut staff and programs elsewhere in the district.

"Now it's not about a reduced lease [cost] -- it's about equity in the system," he said.

The board is tentatively scheduled to vote on Williams' proposal March 9 after a series of community meetings about the plan.

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