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Charter schools offer proposals to operate Buffalo public schools

Three charter school proposals related to two failing Buffalo schools left some unanswered questions Monday.

Health Sciences Charter School is still awaiting approval from the state Education Department to implement its proposal to open an elementary and middle school at the city’s low-performing Martin Luther King Multicultural Institute.

Tapestry Charter School has only verbal affirmation from the state to move forward with plans to move its high school to the Bennett High School building, while sharing the space with the Charter School for Applied Technologies.

And none of the plans has concrete provisions for what to do with current public school students in those buildings, although one School Board member pointed out there is an option of closing the schools and reopening them as charter schools.

“In that way the Buffalo students could stay,” said board member Carl Paladino.

Student performance at East, Lafayette and Bennett high schools, as well as at Martin Luther King Multicultural Institute, an elementary school, has been so poor that the state has demanded that district leaders come up with plans to transform them or phase them out of existence. Charter School for Applied Technologies, Health Sciences Charter and Tapestry Charter High School have presented proposals related to Bennett and MLK.

Charter School for Applied Technologies wants to close its current Kenmore site, relocate to Bennett and expand its high school program at Bennett. Expanding the program would allow the charter school to go from 525 seats in high school to 715, but current Bennett students would have to apply and go through the lottery system because the “law will not allow us to give them preference,” said Efrain Martinez, head of school.

“The request for space did not ask to prepare a plan for how to treat district students. It did not call for helping students at Bennett,” Martinez said.

Health Sciences Charter School on Ellicott Street, which currently serves ninth through 12th grades, wants to keep the high school at its current location, but the hope is to work with the city school district to reopen MLK as Health Sciences Elementary and Middle School with kindergarten through eighth grade and add 720 seats in the process, said Principal Hank Stopinski.

The expansion plan, however, has yet to be approved by the state Department of Education. A proposal was submitted last November, but the charter school has not been given a final decision, Stopinski said.

“Until you are approved, you can’t do any of what you are proposing?” asked School Board member Barbara Seals Nevergold.

Stopinski replied yes.

Health Sciences’ plan would not seek to displace MLK students, Stopinski said. The charter would accept all current student who apply until capacity of 720 was reached. If there are any applications beyond that number, everyone would have to go to a lottery system, including the current MLK students, Stopinski said.

Officials from Tapestry Charter High School on Great Arrow Avenue proposed moving its “small” high school into a portion of Bennett, which would mean sharing space with CSAT, said Principal Lynn Seagren Bass.

Currently, Tapestry is approved for 80 students at each high school grade for a total of 320 only at the high school level, Seagren Bass explained. The school is asking for 85 seats per grade for a difference of 20 seats at the high school level.

This plan is contingent upon sharing the space, Seagren Bass said.

“Our proposal is based solely on sharing space at Bennett with CSAT,” Seagren Bass said.

Tapestry has no specific provisions on what to do with the current Bennett students, primarily because the request for space did not require them to. “There was no request in there for anything specific” on what to do with Bennett students, Seagren Bass said.

If the co-location plan is approved, CSAT and Tapestry would have to work out the details of running two separate programs in the same building.

“It may be two floors for one of the schools and two floors for the other school,” Martinez said.

The district has not set up any guidelines for how a district lease to a charter school would occur. Some members of the board majority have stated that the district would follow the New York City model and agree to lease the buildings to the charter schools for free, as long as the charter schools assume responsibility for all maintenance, renovation, utilities, insurance and the like.

Unless board members can get a deadline extension from the state, they must reach a final decision regarding the new academic proposals and the charter school requests at Wednesday’s board meeting. If the board turns to charters, it would set a precedent in Buffalo.

If the board cannot get a majority to agree this week on a way to keep these schools open in September, the schools would continue on a multiyear path to shutdown.