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Judge issues temporary relief for charter school amid funding dispute with Buffalo district

WBFO News File Photo/Eileen Buckley

A state Supreme Court justice issued a temporary restraining order against Buffalo Public Schools late Friday after Tapestry Charter School sued the district for withholding payments of state aid intended for the school.

The dispute stems from an audit conducted by the state Comptroller’s office last year which found that BPS overpaid city charter schools by $1 million during the 2017-2018 school year and indicated that further overpayments likely dated back to 2007. Once the error was discovered, the district sought to recover the excess funds paid to charters first by requesting voluntary repayments, and then, in February, by notifying charter schools it planned to withhold future payments of state aid.

Tapestry Charter School is the first Buffalo charter school to launch a legal challenge over the withheld payments, which it claimed to be an illegal “claw back scheme.”

“It’s never belonged to the district. It never belonged to BPS,” said Eric Klapper, K-12 executive director at Tapestry. The funding, he said, “belongs to the parents. It belongs to the students themselves.”

Charter schools are independently-run public schools. They are funded by the state through their resident districts—in this case, BPS. The overpayments in question resulted from the district’s use of an outdated formula for calculating payments for special education services, according to the audit. Following the report, BPS determined that it overpaid Buffalo’s 19 charter schools a total of $6.83 million between 2007 and 2018, as reported by The Buffalo News.

Having received an estimated $782,000 in overpayments, according to BPS, Tapestry said it has the most to lose of any charter school in Buffalo from the withheld payments.

“Those special education students who may have benefited from any of those overpayments over those years are now through our system,” Klapper said, “and it’s the current students at Tapestry that are suffering from mistakes made on the backs of those past students.”

Klapper said the district withheld a payment of $195,610 on March 3, 2020, and that it plans to withhold the same amount on May 1, as well as approximately $400,000 during the 2020-21 academic year. The school requested an emergency injunction Friday to pause the “claw back,” and State Supreme Court Justice Paul B. Wojtaszek issued a temporary restraining order against BPS hours later. Wojtaszek also set a court hearing date for April 29.

Klapper said the withheld funds threatened Tapestry’s essential operations in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, including making sure that students remain fed while they’re out of school. Nathaniel Kuzma, general counsel for BPS, disagreed.

“Their claim that these payments will interfere with COVID-19 costs for remote learning and meal service to their children is unfounded and disingenuous,” Kuzma said in a written statement provided to WBFO. “Tapestry has a $5.4M fund balance (savings account) representing 40% of their annual expenditures, and therefore, have plenty of taxpayer money to weather the storm. Further, the District has offered meals to ALL Buffalo children regardless of school affiliation. Families of Tapestry students are welcome to obtain meals from the District's food service program. We have served nearly half a million meals to date. We will feed Tapestry students.”

Kuzma also said BPS offered to discuss an alternative repayment plan with Tapestry, which the school declined.

“This isn’t about a payment plan,” Klapper responded in a press release Monday. “It’s about justice for our students and families.”

Klapper also said neither BPS nor the New York State Education Department has provided legal justification for withholding current aid.

Kyle Mackie is a multimedia journalist with reporting experience in Israel and the Palestinian territories, the Western Balkans and New York City. She joined WBFO to cover education and more in June 2019.
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