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Board opens door to requests by charters for space at 4 Buffalo schools

The push to have charter schools take over some of Buffalo’s district schools continues to press forward, with at least two local charter schools expressing interest in occupying space in existing city school buildings.

In a 5-3 vote, the Buffalo Board of Education adopted a plan Wednesday that would allow any existing “high-performing” charter school organization to request operating space in East, Lafayette, Bennett or Martin Luther King schools for the next school year. Those four schools are considered “out of time” by the state and must present acceptable turnaround plans or face closure.

“This goes to the heart of what we were talking about,” board member Larry Quinn said.

Leaders of Health Sciences Charter School and Tapestry Charter School have expressed interest in occupying space in those city schools. Health Sciences Charter, in fact, has just submitted paperwork to the state seeking to expand its school charter from high school grades only to a program of kindergarten through 12th grade.

This will likely lead to more challenges and protests from supporters of traditional public schools and the teachers union.

Charter school opponents were initially heartened to learn last week that the state received only two charter applications after Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. allowed an unprecedented third round of applications for Buffalo alone.

Board President James M. Sampson told the board Wednesday that the state rejected both applications, one for Children First Charter School and one for Reach Academy Charter School. The lead applicants for those schools were previously affiliated with Community and Pinnacle charter school of Buffalo, both of which were shut down by the state.

Officially, an Education Department spokesman said the charter applications were withdrawn. But the failure of any new charter school to open in Buffalo under the third-round application process does not prevent any existing charter from seeking to expand and potentially occupy East, Bennett, Lafayette or MLK.

Health Sciences Charter School trustee Cynthia A. Schwartz said all charter schools have until Dec. 15 to submit requests to State Ed asking for permission to expand. She added that she expects a variation of the school’s request to the state to be submitted to the Buffalo Public Schools.

Health Sciences Charter would mostly likely apply to establish an elementary program in what is now MLK, she said.

Joy S. Pepper, executive director of Tapestry Charter School, said her board of trustees continues to seriously consider a proposal to expand in September, as well. Tapestry leaders toured Bennett High School over the summer.

On Wednesday, members of the School Board majority approved a proposal to require charter schools to submit a “request for space” if they wish to occupy East, Lafayette, Bennett or MLK.

That request would require all applicants to state whether they wish to:

• Take over an entire district school building.

• Or co-locate their school with another charter school in a district school building.

• Or co-locate in a district school building with another district school.

Applicants requesting space from the district also would have to state whether their proposal would require formal closure of the current school in that building.

Members of the board’s minority bloc questioned whether the procedure adopted by the board is legal. “It’s premature to vote on it without more information,” said board member Barbara A. Seals Nevergold.

Meanwhile, the district is putting forth its own in-house turnaround plans for East, Bennett, Lafayette and MLK. A panel of 12 evaluators, including four not affiliated with the district or any traditional public school, would rate all turnaround proposals the district receives for the four schools. The evaluators would be appointed by interim Superintendent Donald A. Ogilvie.

To prevent the evaluators from outside pressure, Ogilvie said, their names would not be released until the ratings are completed in January.

The board approved this process at its Wednesday meeting, again with the majority voting in favor and the minority voting against, citing a “lack of transparency.”