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Several area education organizations are involved in discussions to let Buffalo Public School students attend Catholic schools, their tuition potentially paid for with private donations through the Bison Children’s Scholarship Fund.

Leaders of both the Buffalo Public Schools and Catholic Diocese of Buffalo schools acknowledged that they are involved in conversations about the possibility. Those talks have been preliminary and key details have not been resolved.

The agreement would target some of the 2,200 Buffalo Public School students who have requested a transfer out of low-performing schools, but who the district cannot accommodate. Those students would receive scholarships to fill empty spots that are available in diocesan schools.

“This should be the start of a strong collaboration between parochial schools and the districts,” said Will Keresztes, who is overseeing the district’s school choice and transfer plan. “The more choices that exist for families, the better.”

Keresztes said he was approached several months ago about the possibility of sending district students to the Catholic schools and talked with people from the diocese and the Bison Fund.

The district has been struggling to figure out ways to accommodate the thousands of students who requested transfers out of low-performing schools, as they are entitled to by state law. Buffalo schools can accommodate at most 500 students, so district officials have been looking for alternative places to transfer those students.

During those preliminary talks, Keresztes said, he proposed that the district can help facilitate the transfer of city students to privately run Catholic schools by providing information about the option to its families. The district by law would not be able to turn over money to the Catholic schools.

The Bison Fund, however, could fill the financing gap. The fund is a privately financed tuition assistance program to help low-income elementary school children attend private schools and give those families an educational choice. Families must demonstrate financial need. They also typically must be willing to pay at least $500 toward their child’s education, and it’s not clear how that requirement might be handled in this instance.

The district students also would have to meet the admissions criteria of the Catholic schools they applied to, Keresztes said

“We are absolutely interested in this,” he said. “We would help in any way we could.”

Sister Carol Cimino, superintendent of Catholic schools, said she has met with Mayor Byron W. Brown and Deputy Mayor Ellen Grant to discuss the possibility of transfers into Catholic schools. Diocesan officials have also requested a meeting with Buffalo School Superintendent Pamela Brown.

Diocesan officials have had discussions about the possibility, said Carol Kostyniak, secretary for education in the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo.

“We would be happy to be called to the table to talk about any of this, and we’ve offered,” Kostyniak said.

The diocese has been grappling with its own issues, namely dwindling student enrollment and strapped finances that will likely force it to shutter some schools.

Kostyniak said the Catholic schools would have to receive some financial reimbursement if they participated in the proposed transfer plan, but declined to give specifics of how much that might be. She also did not say exactly how many Buffalo students could be accommodated in Catholic schools.

While the state’s Blaine Amendment would prohibit the city or the Buffalo Public Schools from using public dollars to pay Catholic school tuition for children who opt out of low-performing city schools, Catholic school officials and others have proposed that an independent organization such as the Bison Fund could serve as an intermediary for providing reimbursement. The Bison Fund already provides scholarships to about 1,750 children attending Catholic schools.

Christopher L. Jacobs, who sits on the Bison Fund’s board, said he was not specifically aware of the proposal to try to accommodate students from the city schools. Amy E. Popadick, executive director of the organization, could not be reached for comment.

“I’m not sure specifically to this issue,” Jacobs said. “Certainly we’re as concerned as everyone else about these children. We continue to reach out.”

email: tlankes@buffnews.com and jtokasz@buffnews.com