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Buffalo School Board delays decision on fate of four struggling schools

The fate of four of Buffalo’s lowest-performing schools will remain uncertain for a few more weeks after the Board of Education decided Wednesday evening to delay its vote to work out several unresolved issues.

The decision came after a brief discussion, driven largely by members of the board’s minority, who raised concerns about the proposals to allow charter schools to use the buildings. Carl Paladino was the only member of the board majority to say anything during the discussion.

The vote followed a presentation by Interim Superintendent Donald A. Ogilvie, during which he laid out a number of factors that could influence the board’s decision on how to redesign East, Lafayette and Bennett high schools, as well as at Martin Luther King Multicultural Institute, an elementary school. Student performance at those schools has been so poor for years that the state is mandating the district drastically overhaul them.

Ogilvie called on the board to develop a master plan for the future of the Buffalo Public Schools, considering enrollment trends and building space, as well as programs that will best serve students.

“If we don’t plan our own future, it will be imposed on us,” Ogilvie said.

The district already is moving forward with plans for a second Emerson School of Hospitality, as well as a program for students new to the country.

At the same time, school officials want to apply for a state grant to open magnet schools designed to attract students from outside the district. Ogilvie said those possibilities, which could include an expansion of Middle Early College or a performing arts elementary school, should be considered when approving the redesign plans now before them.

The district also may need to consider other new programs in response to an intensive review of its admissions procedures at its criterion high schools.

And – if that isn’t enough – the district anticipates that it will have to develop turnaround plans for other struggling schools in the coming years.

As part of the resolution approved Wednesday, the board will reconvene Wednesday to work on a master plan for the district. It then will reconsider the phase-in proposals at another meeting Feb. 11.

Meanwhile, board members face political pressure at all levels of the community from parents and the Buffalo Teachers Federation to Common Council members, who on Wednesday afternoon expressed concerns the board is moving too quickly with its phase-in proposals.

Hundreds of people have turned out at School Board meetings in recent months to have their say, many of them criticizing the proposals to allow charter schools to use the district buildings.

All of the schools, however, were identified as low-performing years ago, and state law mandates the district do something to turn around their performance. The board considered similar plans for Bennett and MLK last year, but went back to the drawing board after the state raised concerns about those plans and Ogilvie took over as interim superintendent.

Ogilvie asked each of the four schools to come up with a proposal for a new school that could be phased in to replace the old ones. All of those schools required a signed memorandum of understanding from the union to allow for changes to the teachers’ contract.

At the same time, several board members have been pushing to close the schools and lease the space to charter schools, raising concerns among members of the board minority.

“It is unacceptable to give our best assets away like that,” said board member Theresa Harris-Tigg. “Our best assets should be our best opportunities.”