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Lines drawn over charter school proposals; Niagara Falls school district fears loss of students, state aid

The movement toward independent charter schools is sending chills up and down the spines of supporters of the traditional school system in Niagara Falls.

Two applications for charter schools in or near Niagara Falls are pending before the state Education Department, and one charter school already is operating in Wheatfield, just beyond the city line.

If the two new applications are approved, then the three charter schools together could eventually enroll up to 1,400 students who otherwise would attend the traditional public schools in Niagara Falls.

Nearly 8,000 students now attend schools in the city school district.

Much of the financial aid that the state sends to the city schools would flow to the charter schools right along with the students, leaving the already cash-starved city district with less money to pay for their educational programs.

The charter school sponsors don't see themselves as competing with the local schools; they see themselves as cooperating with the existing schools to provide the most innovative educational alternatives possible.

But the potential reduction in state funding has some traditional school supporters so frightened that they are considering the figurative equivalent of trench warfare to prevent the encroachment of charter schools in or near the city.

If state charters are granted to the two new independent applicants, "We should just send them the keys to our schools and let them take over," School Board President Russell J. Petrozzi said recently during a moment of frustration.

School Superintendent Cynthia A. Bianco, one of the strongest supporters of the traditional system of public education, said the outflow of students and financial aid to charter schools would cripple the system and cause drastic cuts in programs, activities and personnel.

The reduction in student population could reduce some costs, she explained, but it would do nothing to cut fixed expenses and it could lead to higher taxes.

"I am a firm believer that a public education is the best education," she said.

Bianco has appointed Deputy Superintendent Mark Laurrie to head a task force to fight the proposed charter schools and defend the present system.

Laurrie has plunged into the fight with a vigorous program to enlist the support of local parents, labor-union members, business leaders and others to lobby against the charter schools in meetings with state legislators, education officials and members of the state Board of Regents.

On the other side of the fight are supporters of the charter schools that are run by their own independent boards of trustees, and not by the publicly elected School Board.

Oddly, both sides insist that their goals are identical -- to provide the best possible education for their students.

The charter supporters say they are not competing with other schools; rather, they are trying to cooperate in providing greater educational opportunities.

Contrary to some public perceptions, charter schools are not private schools. They are independently operated public schools chartered by the state Education Department, paid for by state aid as well as by private sources, and obligated to meet all of the state's educational requirements.

One of the charter school applicants, the Economic Development Group Inc., specifically states that it would become a partner "with numerous Niagara Falls School District departments as well as other districts and charter schools" to share their "best practices."

Constance M. Moss of Buffalo, the lead applicant for the other proposed charter school in the Falls, said last week: "We are not looking to compete with the public schools. We are looking to reach out to school systems to cooperate with them to offer alternative opportunities -- not to compete with them."

Falls School Board member Johnny G. Destino said he is glad the district is looking at the proposals seriously.

"While I agree with the school administration's plan to educate stakeholders in the community on what effects charter schools will have on our school district," Destino said, "I believe the board needs to immediately begin preparing for the reality that charter schools are going to shape public education.

"Rather than viewing every child who leaves the district as a loss of funds, we need to begin addressing the needs of the children who remain in our district first. With what will amount to an increase in per-pupil spending, we will have a real opportunity to create a curriculum and support system that will improve the lives of our special education students.

"The introduction of charter schools in the city will certainly impact our district; the board's role going forward must be to proactively explore how to best manage the district in light of their arrival."

The Economic Development Group Inc. has proposed a Global Sciences Charter School to be located at a site yet to be selected in or near Niagara Falls. Its prospectus says it will give middle school and high school students, "primarily from Niagara Falls and surrounding communities," new opportunities to prepare for "more secure and better jobs."

It proposes to open for the 2012-13 school year with 120 students in ninth grade and to add a grade each year until it has 720 students in grades seven through 12 in 2017-18. The group opened a Health Sciences Charter School last August with 120 students in ninth grade in the Town of Tonawanda. It is led by Kevin Donovan and Janice Barrett.

The school proposed by Moss would be a College & Career Girls Prep Charter School housed in the former Sacred Heart School on 11th Street in Niagara Falls. It would open in 2012-13 with 84 girls in ninth grade and expand to 336 girls in grades nine through 12 in 2016-17.

"We are looking to serve students from Niagara and Erie counties, including Buffalo and possibly Lackawanna, with a very small proportion of students from Niagara Falls," Moss said. She said the charter school would seek to prevent girls from dropping out of school and to provide "a strong academic background to prepare them for college or careers."

She said the school would offer bus transportation to students from Buffalo and other districts, 211 days of instruction each year instead of the traditional 186 days, paid internships for students and non-traditional career courses for women, with only 14 girls in each class.

Moss is a retired assistant superintendent and associate superintendent in the Buffalo public school system. "Our charter school's focus on females has energized me," she said.

The only existing charter school in Niagara County is the Niagara Charter School on Lockport Road in Wheatfield. It has 350 students in kindergarten through sixth grade, with one certified teacher for every 12 students.

"About 330 of our students come from Niagara Falls, but there are no geographical boundaries and no restrictions on who can attend our school," said Greg Norton, the school's business manager.

The school specializes in "expeditionary learning -- an extension of what we used to think of as field trips," Norton said. These are trips outside the school where children bring their real-life experiences back into the classroom.

Petrozzi, the city School Board president, is troubled that charter schools have no boundaries; they can accept students from any school district.

"It doesn't matter whether they are 50 feet inside the city line or 50 feet outside the city line," he lamented. "They still can take our students."

e-mail: rbaldwin@buffnews.com

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