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Buffalo council members weigh in on fate of 4 schools

With the fate of four struggling public schools the main topic at Wednesday night’s Buffalo School Board meeting, some city lawmakers are unhappy with the way the process is being handled.

“I think they are moving very quickly,” Niagara District Councilman David A. Rivera said when city schools were mentioned at a council meeting earlier this week. “It is a divided school district.”

“These schools are in our district. We give them half of our tax levy, then have no influence over them,” he said of the city school district. “We want to be part of this. I have no idea why they are failing schools. There needs to be a better way. We want a school district that listens to the community.” Teachers and parents with children in the schools seem to have been left out of the conversation by school board members who are considering closing public schools and possibly creating more charter schools, said Delaware District Councilman Michael J. LoCurto. “Discussions with teachers and people with children in the school seem to be marginalized in an effort to take the public out of public schools,” LoCurto said. “You do this. Why?” he asked. “You want more charter schools? You want to demoralize teachers. What happens to the students there now? A public school is there for everyone.” 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. The decisions will affect nearly 2,000 students.

The School Board is supposed to make final decisions regarding the four plans at a meeting Wednesday night, as the board faces a state deadline to make decisions.

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. “What is going on here?,” asked Masten District Councilman Demone A. Smith. “Is closing schools the answer, or is it something more sinister. We can turn around cities, but we can’t turn around schools?” People are tiring of the inability of the district to improve the schools, and also worry about the impact on children who are constantly being told they are in failing schools, he said. “Bennett is in a nice neighborhood,” Smith said. “What about the kids who are told they are attending a failing schools? Has anyone taken time to talk to these kids?

“People are getting tired of it,” he added.”The only thing holding back the city is what they are doing with schools.” University District Councilman Rasheed N.C. Wyatt agreed.

“We need a total makeover of our school system,” he said. “It seems the focus is not about the children.” “Closing schools. Opening schools. Kids need structure,” he said. “You don’t do that by closing schools.”

Fixing the school system, Rivera added, is key to getting more people to move into the city.

In recent years, Rivera said, there have been a number of different superintendents and a number of different school board members.

“Is it the system that is failing,” Rivera asked. “I don’t know. We need to engage our community and find out.”