A heated two-hour public hearing Wednesday night sparked plenty of hostile exchanges, along with allegations of racism and questions about a profit motive, regarding a proposal to close East High School and Waterfront Elementary and reopen them as charter schools.
Dozens of people packed the boardroom of the Buffalo School Board, with nearly 20 of them publicly addressing the board.
Two-thirds of those who spoke opposed the charter school plans; most of them were teachers at Waterfront.
Since David Hills took over as principal at Waterfront more than a year ago, they said, student performance has improved. Attendance is up, suspensions are down, and a new sense of optimism permeates the school, they said.
“Please don’t allow this group to do a hostile takeover of two of our schools,” said Pat Caldiero, a retired Waterfront teacher. “Education should not be a for-profit business. As our elected officials, please protect our schools from the exploitation of outside groups.”
Chameleon Community Schools Project, a nonprofit, has submitted an application to the state Education Department to close both schools, which are considered among the lowest achieving in New York, and reopen them as charters. The state required the district to hold a public hearing on the plans.
It is the first time in the state that an outside group has proposed a charter takeover of district schools without the support of the local district.
“To come in and just pull two schools from under us is just unheard of. I really have an issue with it,” said School Board member Rosalyn L. Taylor, who represents the East District.
For the plans to move forward, either the board would have to vote to close the schools, or the state Education Department would have to close the schools.
Board members made it clear they have no intention of ceding the schools to a charter group.
“Why now, when we have a new superintendent, a highly qualified superintendent, a distinguished educator and Say Yes to provide wraparound services?” asked board President Mary Ruth Kapsiak. “Tell me, why do you think you can do a better job than these highly qualified people we have?”
Kapsiak and others took Chameleon to task for not having the support of parents at the two schools. No Waterfront or East parents spoke at the hearing. Chameleon leaders said they had been denied access to parents, prompting some board members to say that the group had simply not tried hard enough.
Racial tensions proved to be an undercurrent at times, periodically surfacing more explicitly. Ninety percent of the students at East are African-American; 5 percent are Hispanic. Most of the people in the group proposing the charter plans are white.
Some residents expressed concern that Chameleon targeted East for its bioinformatics program, so that the group could bus in white students to take advantage of the program.
“We have black children who now have access to biomedical [classes at East]. If someone is privatizing that school, they have power over who gets access to that,” said Mike Quinney, an alumnus of the school. “Don’t show up and say you are concerned about black children or brown children when I haven’t seen you [in the neighborhood].”
A few speakers said they support Chameleon’s plans. They urged the board to thoroughly research and think through its decision.
“Let’s make sure this conversation is based on facts. Charter schools are not private schools,” said Hannya Boulos, director of Buffalo ReformED. “And we need to come to grips with the realities this district is facing. We have 44 low-performing schools. There is an urgency to this situation. We have children who are in need of better opportunities.”
School Board member Ralph R. Hernandez, who represents the West District, asked Chameleon leaders why their proposed budget for Waterfront reflects a $1.9 million profit in the first year. “What does the charter intend to do with that profit?” he asked.
“These budgets don’t project any increase in year-to-year per-student reimbursement,” said Steven Polowitz, an attorney working with Chameleon. “Any surplus ends up being used in later years. When you get five years out, you’re not seeing much of a surplus at all.”
His group’s proposal for East and Waterfront calls for a school day of at least eight hours; a 195-day school year; classes of no more than 20 students in kindergarten through fifth grade; and partnerships with several outside groups.
“We intend to turn around what are two of the lowest-performing schools in the city and make them highly desirable to students and their families,” said Valeria Aldridge, a board member of the charter group and an East alumnus. “This creates 1,500 seats in schools in good standing. It puts needed resources in these buildings.”