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One of Buffalo's highest-performing public schools faces closure. Here's why.

Kortni Burg/Courtesy of Buffalo Academy of Science Charter School
The NYS Board of Regents denied Buffalo Academy of Science Charter School's renewal and revision application last week. The school now faces immediate closure in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.

One of Buffalo’s highest-performing public schools faces closure following a vote by the New York State Board of Regents last week. WBFO’s education reporter Kyle Mackie reports on how Buffalo Academy of Science Charter School got caught in pandemic politics and the great debate about charter schools.

During the 2018-2019 school year, Buffalo Academy of Science Charter School, or BuffSci, ranked fourth in math proficiency and sixth in science among all district and charter schools in Buffalo, according to state test results. The school came in just behind the Elmwood Village Charter Schools in English Language Arts and slightly ahead of them in math. And BuffSci’s overall graduation rate was 94%, lower than only Leonardo Da Vinci High School (99%) and the district’s two tested high schools: City Honors and Olmsted #156 (both 96%).

By comparison, the average state graduation rate last year was 83%, and across Buffalo Public Schools, 65%.

BuffSci is also in good financial and management shape, as determined by the New York State Education Department’s (NYSED) Charter School Office. Those issues often plague charters, which are public schools that are independently run. So, BuffSci Executive Director Joseph Polat was expecting an easy ‘yes’ vote from the Board of Regents for his school to stay open on May 4.

That’s not what he got.

Credit Kyle S. Mackie/WBFO News
BuffSci Executive Director Joseph Polat speaks to WBFO via Zoom on Monday, May 18.

“In one political night, everything is taken away,” Polat said. “It’s surreal.”

The Board of Regents is one of two main charter school authorizers in New York State (the other is the State University of New York [SUNY] Charter Schools Institute), and it oversees BuffSci, which opened in 2004. The Regents’ monthly meeting was actually held in the morning last Monday, and like everything these days, it took place virtually.

The public part of the meeting lasted four hours and 16 minutes, beginning with two presentations by NYSED officials: One on the department’s emergency response to the COVID-19 pandemic and one addressing the enacted state budget for the coming fiscal year. As NYSED Chief Financial Officer Phyllis Morris said, the financial outlook for public education amid the pandemic is bleak.

“I think that [the] budget situation is just particularly dire at the present time,” Morris said. “There were school aid increases that were envisioned by the executive budget and that weren’t continued and there were really very few additional new programs… that the budget included.”

Credit Kortni Burg/Courtesy of Buffalo Academy of Science Charter School.
Elementary school students read at BuffSci.

The state Division of the Budget has also reserved the right to further reduce aid to localities by any amount necessary to balance the state deficit, which worries school districts statewide, including Buffalo.

The presentation rattled several Regents, including Beverly Ouderkirk of the North Country, who commented, “I don’t know how school districts are going to survive this.”

Then, the very next item on the agenda was to vote on the renewals of six charter schools, which, by law, have to be reauthorized every five years. BuffSci was first on the list.

Introducing each of the six schools, also among them the Charter School for Applied Technologies in Kenmore and Health Sciences Charter School in Buffalo, Chief of Staff of NYSED’s Office of Education Policy Allison Armour-Garb explained that the Charter School Office does the heavy lifting of evaluating how schools are doing and making recommendations for the Regents as to whether or not they should vote to renew them. For BuffSci, the office recommended a full five-year renewal and an expansion of 144 students, which would be phased in over the next two years, to add third and fourth grades—the last two grades BuffSci needs to become a full K-12 school.

“And indeed, I wanted to say that most enrollment increase requests that come from the charter schools do not ever make it your level, the board level,” Armour-Garb told the board. “They are rejected at the stage when they’re presented to the program office. The department sets a very high bar for making enrollment increase recommendations.”

Credit Kyle S. Mackie/WBFO News
Dr. Catherine Collins, the Western New York representative on the New York State Board of Regents, speaks during the board's virtual meeting on May 4.

Almost an hour of discussion followed in which several regents, including Dr. Catherine Collins, who represents the Western New York region, expressed general concerns about charter schools taking state aid away from public school districts.

“All of us sat here and heard the report dealing with the budget, and all I heard was reduction in what we were requesting, and freezes,” Collins said. “We don’t know how much money we’re going to have to even approve the things that the public schools need. I think it would be irresponsible of us to approve and obligate these districts—the district, Buffalo, and I want to mention Rochester as well—to spend the kind of money that’s needed to support the charter schools as well as the public schools.”

Collins argued further against the siting of any new charter schools in Buffalo and said she doesn’t want to be responsible for the “implosion” of the city’s public school district five years down the road.

That financial argument against charters is one CEO Anna Hall of the Northeast Charter Schools Network knows well. It’s also a key part of the national debate on charter schools.

Credit Kortni Burg/Courtesy of Buffalo Academy of Science Charter School.
High school students learn about local colleges at BuffSci.

“I think the concept of stealing implies ownership, and it implies that those funds are the rightful property of the district, where in fact they are the rightful property of the families and the children of Buffalo,” Hall said. “The district no more owns a child than they own those funds.”

Hall also said that in her 12 years in charter school administration and advocacy, she’s never seen such a successful charter school as BuffSci get shut down.

“That is the promise and the value proposition of charter schools,” she said. “If things aren’t going well, it will be closed. Not recycled. Not renamed. It will be closed.” On the flip side, if schools are performing well, they offer “the opportunity to do better for kids.”

Speaking up a few different times during the Regents’ discussion, Vice Chancellor T. Andrew Brown pointed out that charter schools are part of New York State education law.

“Whether we personally like the idea of charter schools, even the existence of charter schools, that’s a matter of legislation,” Brown said. “We have to honor that. We can’t ignore that. If we did then we [the Board of Regents] would be in violation of the law.”

The dissenting Regents didn’t bring up any specific complaints about BuffSci except that it hasn’t yet met its required enrollment of students with disabilities and English Language Learners. However, that’s also true of Applied Technologies and Health Sciences, which the board voted in favor of renewing during the same meeting. BuffSci also serves a slightly higher proportion of economically disadvantaged students (90%) than Buffalo Public Schools (82%) and Applied Technologies (77%), according to the Charter School Office’s evaluation.

Still, when the time came to vote, BuffSci was up first and the vote failed, with seven votes in favor, nine in opposition and one abstention, seemingly because its expansion request was tied to its entire charter renewal.

“I’m very much in support of what Regent Collins said. I have great concerns,” said Regent Susan Mittler of the Southern Tier. “I will vote ‘no’ on any expansion. This is not the time for expansion.”

As the decision stands now, BuffSci’s charter will expire at the end of June. Polat, the school’s executive director, said he’s heartbroken and shocked by the move.

Credit Kyle S. Mackie/WBFO News
Encouraged by BuffSci school staff, parents are posting video testimonials on social media about why they support the school staying open.

“That means the entire school, 760 students and their families, and about 150 staff and teachers, will be homeless in the coming year.”

In an effort to try and avoid that fate, the BuffSci community is making its anger known. Parents and students are flooding social media with video testimonials and contacting Regents in a phone, email and letter campaign.

“I am calling because I do not want you to close my school,” said a student named Nathan Adams in one of the videos posted on Facebook. “In June, please vote 'yes' for the Buffalo Academy of Science five-year renewal because my friends and I deserve it.”

“I just want to take the time to say: Please do not close the school down,” said a mother identified as Mrs. Alls in another video. “These children needs to be in a good school with good teachers. That’s all I’m asking. Please keep the school open.”

Polat also said BuffSci will pursue legal avenues in order to be granted at least an extra year of operation if the board persists in its decision—but that won’t help the school’s current second graders who won’t have a next grade to go to if a renewal extension is granted without the requested expansion.

Given the backlash over the past two weeks, WBFO confirmed that at least one Regent who voted no on BuffSci’s renewal—Frances Wills of the Hudson Valley—wishes to change her vote.

Credit Kyle S. Mackie/WBFO News
BuffSci advocates are calling on the Board of Regents to cast a new vote on the school's future in June. Neither NYSED nor the board responded to WBFO's inquiry about whether that's possible.

“Frankly, I have regretted my vote at the meeting,” Wills wrote in an email. “I intend to support the school should a future vote be held. I have also conveyed my change of heart to those who have communicated with me.”

Wills also shared with WBFO an email she said she sent to her fellow Regents on May 5. It reads, in part:

“At our meeting on Monday I heard passionate feelings about the negative impact of the charters in districts and felt torn between supporting my colleagues and their knowledge of particular regions, and feelings that I would be leaving a large group of students without a sense of continuity in a time of such uncertainty. I also heard the concern about how the effect of the pandemic on school aid and the sustainability of our school districts would be further harmed by the costs of supporting the Charter Schools. When I reflected on my vote, I realized that I had wavered from my deepest principle, do no harm to children. I personally regret my decision, and am hopeful that there is some way that we can reconsider the fate of this school.”

Neither NYSED nor the Board of Regents Chancellor responded to WBFO’s inquiry about whether it would be possible to have another vote in June, as the school’s advocates are pushing for. Collins, the Western New York Regent, spoke to WBFO Wednesday and said she will continue to follow the lead of the Buffalo school district, which is opposed to any expansion of charter schools.

“How many ways can I tell you that I’m supporting what the school district has asked the state not to do, is approve this school?” Collins said. “I can’t say it any differently. This is what they asked.”

WBFO also asked Collins to respond to the concerns raised by BuffSci families and staff, along with other community leaders. Here is a full transcript of that exchange:

MACKIE: What is your response to the parents who are upset that a good charter school is being closed?

COLLINS: There are more than one charter school in the city of Buffalo. There's the public schools sitting there. There are parents who have children in their schools, in the charter schools and also in the Buffalo Public Schools. Please continue to do what you have to do as a parent, whatever that is, to educate your children. That's all I have to say is that as a parent, as a parent and as a former nurse who worked for the Buffalo school district years ago, do whatever you can to educate your children. The Buffalo Public School, the charter school, the Catholic schools, whatever schools out there, do whatever you have to do. I mean, I can't tell parents what do to but all I can say is support your children and make sure that they get a fine education wherever they are.

MACKIE: Well, I think that's the issue that the BuffSci parents are saying that, ‘we're actually very happy with the education that our students are getting at BuffSci and now that is being taken away from us.’

COLLINS: Okay. I understand. I think I've answered the question. Parents are responsible for making the decisions for their children. We give them, the district as well as the charter schools, they make the decision on where they want to send their kids. I can't make that for them. So, I think this is, you know, we should end this conversation right about now.

The Board of Regents meets again on June 8 and 9. In the meantime, BuffSci prepares to open its second location, starting with Kindergarten and first grade, in September. The Board of Regents approved the replication school last December.

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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