Plans to turn East High and Waterfront Elementary into charter schools have been withdrawn, authors of the plans said Monday.
The group proposing the charters received feedback from the state Education Department last week indicating that the applications would not be approved.
“I know what we presented here is a long shot. It’s the nuclear option,” attorney Steven Polowitz said. “This process is trying to buck the administration, the Board of Education and the union. Every power structure that runs the schools now, we’re bucking.”
Chameleon Community Schools Project, a nonprofit that Polowitz is affiliated with, would have run the two schools under the plans submitted to Albany.
The applications were unlike any other charter applications in the state because they sought to close two existing district schools and reopen them as charter schools. Polowitz designed the plans to fit within one of the four federal school improvement models for failing schools.
He and Amy Friedman, one of the lead applicants, said the state Education Department review process was not designed for what is known as a charter restart – closing a district school and reopening it as a charter school. They attributed the problems with the applications to the lack of a specific application process for such a proposal.
“It was clear from the way they were reviewed that they weren’t prepared to review a charter restart application,” said Friedman, former president of the board at Tapestry Charter School. “They did not understand the charter restart model in its entirety.”
She cited a few questions from the state that would apply to plans to start a new charter school, but not to plans for closing an existing school and reopening it as a charter. One example: What’s the alternative building site if this building is not available? The entire plan is contingent upon getting use of the existing Waterfront and East buildings, she said.
Friedman and Polowitz declined to provide The Buffalo News with copies of the feedback they received from the state.
The state also cited its concern with the lack of a functional relationship between the proposed charter schools and the School Board, Friedman said. The majority of School Board members have been vocally opposed to the charter plans, with several board members saying they took offense because they had not been consulted early enough in the process.
The charter plans would have required either the School Board to vote to close the schools, or the state Education Department to force the closings. Both seemed unlikely. Eight of nine board members opposed the plans, and the state has never intervened anywhere in New York by taking the bold step of closing a district school by revoking its registration.
“We knew it was contingent on State Ed using some muscle to push the district,” Polowitz said. “State Ed needed to be the heavy here. If this is going to happen in a district like Buffalo, I don’t know how else it’s going to happen.”
Friedman and Polowitz said they are planning to continue efforts to turn district schools into charters. They are going to submit applications again in July for a possible fall 2014 opening date. They have not decided which district schools, or even how many, they will submit applications for.
“Twenty-six thousand students in Buffalo are in failing schools,” Polowitz said. “They need options.”
He and Friedman said state education officials have asked them to provide input on designing an application process specifically for charter restart proposals.
They are hoping that by the time they submit applications this summer, the state will have a process in place that is more geared toward what they are proposing.
“This process isn’t over,” Friedman said. “It’s really just beginning.”