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South Buffalo Charter School undeterred by ECIDA setback

South Buffalo Charter School officials pledged Monday to go forward with a new building on South Ogden Street, despite failing to win tax breaks for the project from the Erie County Industrial Development Agency.

The project, estimated at $20 million, is scheduled to be finished in August 2014, said James P. Neimeier, president of the school’s board of trustees.

The school was seeking tax breaks of about $1 million from the ECIDA. They included about $914,000 in savings on sales taxes on materials for the new building, and up to $150,000 in mortgage recording tax savings.

The project needed at least 10 “yes” votes from board members in order to obtain the incentives, but it received only nine affirmative votes. Seven board members voted against the incentives.

“That takes money out of the school budget which we could have used for education on the kids,” Neimeier said.

Opponents cited various reasons for voting against the tax breaks. Some said they disapproved of how charter schools in general draw some funds away from the Buffalo Public Schools. Others were concerned about what would become of South Buffalo Charter School’s present home once it is vacant.

The ECIDA has provided incentives for some other charter school projects in the past. And Richard A. Fontana, an ECIDA board member and Buffalo Common Council president, predicted that the new South Buffalo Charter School would have a positive impact on the Kaisertown neighborhood.

The new charter school is being built on a brownfield site. For that reason, the school formed a taxable entity, 154 South Ogden LLC, in order to receive a brownfield tax credit, Neimeier said.

School officials figured they were facing an “uphill battle” after hearing some of the issues raised at a previous meeting of the ECIDA policy committee, Neimeier said. Even so, he said, he was surprised by the outcome of Monday’s vote.

“The foundation for building a community with industry is, you have to have educated children,” Neimeier said.

“And I think our school is providing a very good education for our children. They go on to high school and graduate.”

South Buffalo Charter School, currently at 2219 South Park Ave., has 670 students in kindergarten through eighth grade and a waiting list of 130 students. Building the new, 100,000-square-foot school emerged as the best option for its future, Neimeier said.

“Over the years, we’ve looked at expanding the current building, but we’re landlocked,” he said. Neimeier said school officials also looked at buying another building in the South Buffalo area but found “none that were acceptable.”

“When we started looking, the city was in the process of revamping buildings, so they were utilizing most of their vacant schools,” he said. “We did try other avenues.”

As for the South Park Avenue building, Neimeier said the school is considering options including opening a high school there. He said that the school has also been approached by a nonprofit organization about turning it into housing and that people planning charter schools of their own have inquired about the building.