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Buffalo schools await answer on U.S. funds Hiring of outside groups has delayed state Education Department verdict

The state Education Department announced last week that 24 schools from Rochester to Yonkers would get $36 million in federal turnaround funds -- but said nothing about whether five of Buffalo's failing schools had qualified for the $10 million they had applied for.

In response to an inquiry from The Buffalo News, state officials said they have not yet decided whether to approve Buffalo's grant applications.

The holdup: The Board of Education has decided to hire outside groups to run three of the five low-performing schools: Lafayette High School, Dr. Charles R. Drew Science Magnet, and Bilingual Center School 33. (At Burgard and Riverside high schools, the district will remain in charge but continue implementing changes, some of which have already been set in motion.)

That leaves three outside groups wondering whether their contracts will be funded.

At this point, in a best-case scenario, if the state does decide to fund the groups, each will have, at best, a month to implement major changes at one of the city's worst schools.

"Any delay by state Education puts more and more pressure on the district and the [educational partnership organizations] to make positive, effective change at these schools," said Mark Mortenson, president and CEO of the Buffalo Museum of Science.

The museum submitted a proposal to turn around Dr. Charles R. Drew Science Magnet, which is adjacent to it.

The federal government had set a July 31 deadline for the state to decide whether to award the funds. While the state has issued its decision on schools in seven districts, it has yet to decide whether to award the federal funds to schools in New York City and Buffalo.

The state got an extension from the federal government, state Education Department spokesman Jonathan Burman said.

"The department will announce, later in August, decisions regarding the remaining applications currently under review," he wrote in an email.

He declined to offer a more specific time frame. Several local sources said state officials had told them a decision would be made by mid-August.

State officials say the holdup is because both Buffalo and New York City have opted to use what's known as the "restart" model for some of their failing schools. In Buffalo, the Board of Education decided in July to hire outside groups to run three schools.

This is the first time that any district in the state has opted to hire an outside educational partnership organization, or EPO, to run a school. While charter management organizations have been running schools for years, nonprofit EPOs are new to the scene.

Despite the fact that the state has delayed making a decision on the funding, the EPOs will still be expected to implement changes in time for the first day of classes in September, Burman said.

Key to the Science Museum's plan for the Science Magnet, for example, is hiring seven more teachers for the school, along with some teacher aides.

But until the museum has a signed contract with the state, it cannot proceed with hiring anyone or making any other progress on its plans.

Likewise, Buffalo State College's plan for turning around Lafayette High School is contingent on hiring a new principal, among other changes.

The district already transferred Fatima Morrell, who had run the school for three years. But nobody has been appointed to replace her. And Buffalo State officials had made it clear that they wanted to select the new leader. Until the state makes a decision on the turnaround plan for Lafayette, it appears neither the district nor the college will be able to appoint a new principal.

John F. Siskar, interim associate vice president for teacher education, is leading Buffalo State College's efforts with Lafayette.