Officials with the Catholic schools of the Buffalo Diocese said Wednesday that a proposal to use private scholarship money to help pay tuition for city students seeking transfers from public schools could save some Catholic schools from closing, while at the same time offering children a way out of low-performing public schools.
Leaders for the diocese and a parents group are all open to the idea, but Catholic school officials say they are still waiting to hear from Buffalo School Superintendent Pamela C. Brown.
“We certainly would like to help, but no one from the district has gotten back to us,” Carol Kostyniak, secretary for education in the diocese, said in a meeting with The Buffalo News Editorial Board.
In response, Brown said that no one from the diocese had reached out to her about the potential agreement. She was aware that diocesan leaders met with Will Keresztes, the Buffalo schools administrator who is overseeing the district’s school choice and transfer plan.
At stake are the educations of at least hundreds of Buffalo schoolchildren who are legally entitled to transfer out of low-performing city schools but whom the district cannot accommodate. “We have over 1,600 children who are forced to stay in failing schools against their will,” Samuel L. Radford III, president of the school district’s parent council, said of the number of children awaiting transfers. “Our first concern can’t be about perception or the impact on public education. Our concern is the impact on our children.”
The futures of some Catholic schools also hang in the mix; the diocese is within weeks of making an announcement about a restructuring plan that will likely include closing some schools.
Those involved say the logistics of the potential plan have been in limbo for months, in part because of stalled communication between the diocese and the public schools.
Brown said Keresztes had met with diocesan officials in August to discuss how the district could help facilitate such a plan, primarily by providing information to families.
The district by law would not be able to turn over money to the Catholic schools. That funding would have to come from an outside source, such as the Bison Children’s Scholarship Fund, which already pays for scholarships for low-income students to attend private schools.
And school district officials also want assurance that funding would be available for city students to stay in their choice of Catholic school until they finish the last possible grade level.
“We have been waiting to hear any additional information they might have for us,” Brown said. “Again, if there’s an opportunity for us to partner, given those stipulations we are bound to by law, we’re happy to have a discussion.”
The agreement would target some of the 2,200 Buffalo students who have requested transfers. Those students would receive scholarships to fill empty spots that are available in diocesan schools, which are struggling with declining enrollment and tight finances. The diocese has about 700 empty seats throughout Western New York, about 376 of which are at schools in the city.
Kostyniak did not specify how many students the diocese might accept under the potential agreement. Any of those students would have the same options available to them as other students receiving a Bison scholarship, which would include diocesan schools in the suburbs.
Kostyniak said the diocese could make such a transfer agreement work with somewhere between $2,000 and $3,000 per student, although that is less than the $5,400 the diocese spends per pupil. Even for tuition-paying students, part of that cost is subsidized by parishes and the diocese. “If you can find me a funder out there, we’re willing to have that conversation,” Kostyniak said. “If a donor were to come forward, it might save a school or two.”
A potential donor, however, may already be in the wings.
Radford, who has been involved in conversations about the potential agreement, said he understood a donor had already come forward. “I’m not at liberty to say who, but the money is there,” Radford said.
Blythe Merrill, vice president of the Oishei Foundation, acknowledged the foundation had been involved in the discussions.
“We’ve had preliminary conversations,” Merrill said. “We don’t have anything finalized at this point.”
Ultimately, funding and the willingness of the diocese would be keys to such an agreement, along with parents taking advantage of the option. “This doesn’t require Pam Brown,” Radford said. “At the end of the day, Pam Brown can make it easier because she can give them a list, but she’s not necessary to make this happen.”