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Community Charter School may close this year

Community Charter School is fighting closure.

The Board of Regents this week unanimously refused to renew the charter of the East Side school, which serves about 300 students in kindergarten through sixth grade. School leaders said they’ll fight the decision, though that leaves parents and students in limbo regarding where the students will wind up in the fall.

The Regents cited the school’s “dramatically declining student performance,” poor and declining English and math proficiency scores, low student engagement, lack of data-driven instruction, charter noncompliance and leadership turmoil.

“In short, Community’s performance on NYS ELA and mathematics assessments over the most recent charter term can be described as declining from year to year, being among the lowest in the state and in the City of Buffalo,” stated a report by the state Education Department Charter School Office.

A state audit also raised questions regarding a conflict of interest between a former board president, Kevin Helfer, and a business partner of his whose company was hired to do major construction work at the school.

School leaders called the news “devastating” and said they’ll fight the decision by the state.

“We’ll explore every possible option, including legal ones,” said Community Charter School President Daniel Ricigliano.

They pointed to numerous examples of how the school has worked hard to improve its performance this year, including the establishment of a school turnaround plan last year, the hiring of a new principal, instructional coaches and consultants, and a revamping and expansion of the charter school board.

Ricigliano laid much of the fault at the feet of former Principal Carol A. Smith, who he said was a source of many staff complaints and failed to follow the guidance given to her by the board of trustees and a consultant hired to improve the school’s performance.

Smith was placed on administrative leave in February of last year, then ultimately fired when she tried to renegotiate the terms of her departure, Ricigliano said. She later threatened to send the Department of Education a “poison letter” outlining numerous failings and violations by the charter school leadership unless the entire board quit and she was named director of the school.

The letter was subsequently sent to the Department of Education, which has resulted in an investigation.

New leadership at the school has led to many positive changes, including a turnaround this year in test scores, Ricigliano said. In addition, many issues raised by the Department of Education last year also have been aggressively addressed.

“We’ve made significant changes in terms of student performance; teaching has been improved,” said Head of School Denise Luka, who was hired in September. “We have a fantastic school improvement plan in place. We took the state’s recommendations and findings very seriously.”

Those changes were acknowledged by the Department of Education, but it did not change the department’s final recommendation.

“While the school has implemented some programmatic changes and proposes changes that are described as designed to improve performance in future years, the possibility of future promise is insufficient to overcome the school’s cumulative record,” the Education Department report stated.