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State sued for withholding millions from low-performing schools that showed improvement

New York State is being sued for withholding millions of dollars in funding for nine of its lowest-performing schools, including three in Buffalo.

The lawsuit, filed in Albany by a group of parents, is related to the state’s controversial receivership law, which passed in 2015 and gave superintendents of 20 under-performing schools unprecedented powers to turn them around.

Lawmakers also agreed to provide them a total of $75 million in aid over two years.

But nine of those schools – which include Buffalo Elementary School of Technology on South Division Street, Burgard High School on Kensington Avenue and South Park High School on Southside Parkway – showed academic improvement and were taken off the receivership list over the summer.

The question for the court is whether those schools should still receive the money allocated to them for this year.

At the time, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo – who championed the legislation – criticized the state Education Department for removing the schools from the receivership list after just one year.

Cuomo, according to the lawsuit, instructed the Division of Budget not to release the second year of funding for those nine that made progress,

But the state law is clear that the funding must be provided for a full, two-year period, the lawsuit contends.

“It is a violation of the law to withhold these funds and hinders their continued improvement,” said Marina Marcou-O’Malley, operations and policy director for the Alliance for Quality Education.

The amount in question totals roughly $13 million, she said.

The Alliance for Quality Education, an Albany-based education coalition, organized the four parents who filed the lawsuit and are being represented by the Education Law Center, a non-profit firm.

The lawsuit was filed in State Supreme Court in Albany at the beginning of September and names as defendants the state Division of Budget and state Education Department, along with Budget Director Robert Mujica and Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia.

When asked for comment on the lawsuit, a state Education Department spokeswoman did little to defend the withholding of the funds by the state.

“We all know that fragile schools, even those moving in a positive direction, continue to require critical funding and appropriate monitoring so they can continue the important work of supporting students,” said Emily DeSantis, a spokeswoman for the state Education Department. “Despite the progress these schools have made, they still need a great deal of oversight and support as they still have much work to do.”

Court proceedings are scheduled for Friday, Sept. 23, the coalition said.

Buffalo was due a total of $9 million in receivership money for B.E.S.T., Burgard and South Park, according to figures provided in the lawsuit. Burgard was to receive $2.4 million; B.E.S.T., $2.7 million; and South Park, $3.8 million.

The three were slated to get more than half the money this year.

Still in question, but not specifically addressed in the lawsuit, is what happens to the pot of money that was unspent by the three during the last school year.

The receivership money from the state was rolled out to schools late and the three in Buffalo didn’t receive all that was promised last year, said Assemblyman Michael P. Kearns, D-Buffalo.

B.E.S.T. is still owed nearly $369,000; Burgard, $422,000; and South Park, more than $1.1 million, according to records from the assemblyman’s office.

“It has been conveyed to me that it’s in a holding pattern,” Kearns said.

In fact, of the $9 million earmarked for B.E.S.T., Burgard and South Park, the three have received only 20 percent of the funding.

Kearns, a critic of the receivership law, has been trying to get Albany to at least release the money the schools are still owed for last year.

“I believe any funding that was promised should be allocated to those schools,” Kearns said. “These are high-need schools. There were reasons why we budgeted this money for these schools. It’s almost like pulling the rug out from under them. They deserve that funding to continue their growth.”

It’s just the latest drama surrounding the receivership law, which was meant to finally turnaround schools that had been struggling for as long as a decade, but has been met with questions since its inception.

Its rollout was bumpy, as schools in the first round had one year to come up with turnaround plans and show progress under the control of the superintendent or face takeover by an outside entity.

The teachers union filed a suit challenging the receivership law’s implementation and the right of the superintendent to impose new contract terms on teachers working at the receivership schools.

Email jrey@buffnews.com

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