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4 schools in Buffalo await word of their fate

The fate of four public schools in Buffalo will likely be decided at Wednesday’s school board meeting.

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 these schools or phase them out of existence. Their decisions will affect nearly 2,000 students.

The School Board is supposed to make final decisions regarding the four plans Wednesday.

Many teachers, administrators and alumni want these schools to remain district public schools and have spent considerable effort creating and promoting new academic models for each.

But most of these plans require union waivers to accommodate reforms such as a longer school day. The School Board majority wants the union to sign off on these waivers upfront, while the union wants the board to approve the plans first. Neither side is budging.

The state Education Department will reject any new, district-sponsored restart plan that does not include union waivers.

Waiting in the wings are several well-regarded charter schools that want the chance to expand their programs into some of those same buildings. If they were to occupy Buffalo School District buildings, it’s unclear what would happen to the students currently in those schools.

The board heard presentations Monday from three charter schools interested in occupying Bennett or MLK.

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 this week, 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.

The teachers union does not see eye-to-eye with the School Board majority on most issues, and this one is no exception. Their mutual distrust is one reason the adoption of new plans for these schools is in jeopardy.

The leadership and teaching staff at Lafayette, East, Bennett and MLK have spent countless hours over the last few months devising new academic models to overhaul their current curriculum. In addition, an outside group has also recommended a new teaching model for MLK. The Buffalo News has reported extensively on each of these five proposals.

But what is common to the four district-sponsored turnaround plans is that they would all require a number of changes to the teachers union contract. The plans would require agreements with the Buffalo Teachers Federation to extend the school day at the three high schools. All four plans would require contract changes that give school principals more authority over whom they hire. Currently, teacher seniority is the primary driver of who gets a school teaching assignment.

The recommended changes to the teachers contract would require a two-thirds majority vote of support from teachers at each of the four schools. The teachers at these schools appear likely to support the contract changes because the reforms could make the difference between their public school staying open and shutting down.

Members of the board majority have repeatedly stated that they don’t want to vote for any plan this week that does not have a signed memorandum of understanding, or MOU, from the teachers union attached to it.

“If the work rules are to be changed, the MOU has to be part of the application,” said board President James M. Sampson.

Union President Philip Rumore, however, said the BTF will not ask teachers to vote on any work rule changes until the board approves the district plans.

“How do they expect us to approve a plan that isn’t a plan? They can change it any time they want,” Rumore said. “Once they’ve approved something, so we know what it is, we can draw up an MOU.”

This game of chicken is further complicated by the fact that in exchange for working longer days, teachers are seeking additional compensation.

“I wouldn’t give them a nickel,” said board member Carl P. Paladino.

The state Education Department does not require that a signed union letter be included as part of any district-sponsored proposal adopted by the board on Wednesday, but the state will not approve any new district-sponsored proposal unless the union eventually signs off.

Members of the board majority have not stated outright that they intend to reject the district-sponsored proposals. Neither have they pledged to support any of the plans.

Even if the district proposals were approved by the board and by the state, education law would still require that the current principal and at least half the teachers be transferred from the school when the new models are adopted.

If the board rejects the proposed plans for Bennett or MLK, members are free to consider leasing these buildings to charter schools. Tapestry Charter School and Charter School for Applied Technologies have submitted requests to relocate and expand their high school programs at Bennett next school year. In addition, Health Sciences Charter School wants to take over MLK and house a new elementary program there.

A fourth request for space was submitted to establish a charter school at East, but that request won’t be considered by the board because the submitting organization does not yet have a charter from the state.

The other requests, however, would appear to require the eventual closure of Bennett and MLK as public schools. Tapestry and CSAT have expressed a willingness to co-locate their high school programs with another charter school at the Bennett site, while Health Sciences Charter School would like to occupy the entire MLK building.

The idea that independent charter schools could take up residence in district buildings has captured the attention of local and statewide interest groups, resulting in public rallies and lobbying efforts.

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.

But even if that’s the case, the board would still be faced with hard-to-answer questions:

• What would happen to the hundreds of students currently enrolled in those schools?

• Would the state make an exception and allow the students currently enrolled in those district schools to be admitted to the occupying charter school?

• Would the occupying charter school want to enroll these district students, even if it could?

Some of these questions may be answered when the board hears from the charter schools Monday afternoon. But the possibility that district students may be displaced troubles both majority and minority board members.

“Where will we send them?” said Barbara A. Seals Nevergold, a member of the board’s minority bloc. “That’s a major concern for me.”

She pointed out that when then-Superintendent Pamela C. Brown wanted to turn MLK into a high school, current board majority members balked and said they didn’t want to see hundreds of youngsters thrown out of their home school.

“What has changed?” Seals Nevergold said.

Sampson said that for him, the concern has not changed. He said that he doesn’t want students displaced and that he wants assurance that these charter schools are not just relocating, but actually creating more seats for Buffalo students who want them. Paladino expressed similar sentiments.

Meanwhile, board member Larry Quinn of the majority bloc held his cards closer to the vest, though he referred to the district proposals and community lobbying efforts by saying that anger, emotion and alumni nostalgia are poor foundations for supporting any plan.

“I want to reserve judgment until I’ve heard everything,” Quinn said. “I’m approaching this in a very simple way: What will give these kids the best chance at a good education?”