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Proposal would make vacant public schools available to charters

Members of the Buffalo School Board majority intend to push a resolution next week that would make at least four vacant school buildings available for charter schools to lease by next school year.

Board Member Larry Quinn said that despite hesitation expressed by district administrators and members of the board minority bloc, there’s no point in holding onto buildings that are simply costing the district money.

“It’s not just balancing the books,” Quinn said. “I think we need to create opportunities for the expansion of charters and provide additional educational opportunities for kids.”

Quinn’s proposal is likely to once again highlight the ideological split among board members. On one side are those who see the expansion of charter schools as a meaningful way to provide more city students a high-quality education; on the other are members who see charters as siphoning money from traditional schools that re-enroll students charter schools don’t keep.

If the board approves Quinn’s proposal, the district would issue a “request for space” that would allow any interested charter school to apply to lease the vacant buildings from the district. Although the charter schools would be able to lease the buildings from Buffalo Public Schools for $1 or some other minimal amount, they would be responsible for assuming all operations, maintenance and renovation costs.

The vacant school buildings include:

• School 8, 167 E. Utica St., considered an “emergency backup” school site by the district;

• School 18 Annex, 495 Normal Ave., currently used as a parent center;

• School 40, 90 Clare St., former site for one of the district’s alternative schools; and

• School 171, 1411 E. Delavan Ave., being considered as a relocation site for adult education programs currently housed at School 86.

District administrators who spoke at Wednesday night’s committee meetings encouraged board members to consider how educational programs may be moved among 10 different buildings that are currently vacant or could soon become vacant. Even though School 28 is not among the four currently being eyed, for instance, they noted that it would not be possible to expand the Emerson School of Hospitality next year to that currently vacant site if the building was not part of the district’s inventory.

They also suggested that it would be more appropriate for the district to simply return unneeded school buildings to the city. At least eight vacant former Buffalo Public Schools buildings already are part of the city’s inventory, they said, as the district has continued to shut down unneeded buildings over the years.

“Why do we want to be landlords?” said Joseph Giusiana, the district’s executive director of plant services. “I believe this district is in the business of education, not real estate.”

Board Member Carl Paladino originally said he agreed that the buildings should be returned to the city, but said Thursday that he made that comment out of frustration and still intends to support Quinn’s resolution to lease the vacant buildings to charter schools.

“You think we’re political at the Board of Ed?” he said. “Imagine letting the city have options on this.”

It is still unclear whether charter schools would have to pay debt service on any buildings that the district has recently renovated, or whether charter schools would have to use the district’s unionized custodial workers for building maintenance. If charter schools are required to use district custodial workers, as district administrators contend, the annual cost to operate, maintain and repair the vacant buildings leased by the district would range from $100,000 to $235,000.

Quinn said Thursday he believes his resolution has enough votes to pass. If it does, the district would issue a “request for space” to charter schools the following week.