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Buffalo education leaders have struggled for years to turn around their lowest-performing schools, and in October, it seemed they had come up with a new way to revamp two of their struggling programs.

As part of a school choice plan submitted to the state, the district proposed closing two schools and reopening them as schools in good standing to accommodate students seeking transfers. That plan involved seeking a request for proposals from outside agencies interested in partnering with the district.

But two months passed before the district administration moved forward with that plan. As a result, applicants interested in working with Bennett High School and Martin Luther King Multicultural Institute had just a little over a month to come up with proposals. Ultimately, the district received only three proposals, all of which were rejected.

Now the district faces a state Education Department deadline to pull together a new plan to close the schools and relaunch them with new programs.

Some critics say that the district administration’s failure to seek proposals in a timely manner discouraged quality applicants from submitting plans, potentially crippling the district’s reform efforts.

The sudden change of direction also raises questions among critics about how the shift will affect the two schools and whether it will hurt the district’s relationship with the state and key business partners.

“The district and its leadership have been well aware of the looming deadlines since last October,” board member James Sampson wrote in a memo he plans to send the board. “It knew what its options were all along and chose to wait to the last possible moment to advance poorly thought-out and designed recommendations.

“The RFPs were completed in October but weren’t released until close to Christmas. This delay denied the district the ability to seek out high-quality proposals that would bring innovation and the promise of high performing education choices for students and families.”

Those plans, however, may bring hefty consequences for the two schools.

The plan to close MLK and reopen it as the Medical Campus School will displace roughly 400 students, since the new school will serve students in grades five through 12.

Sampson also worries about the impact the Bennett plan could have on its partnership with M&T Bank, which works with the school through the Promise Neighborhood Project.

“By submitting an application to SED to phase out and phase in a new school at Bennett High School the BPS has essentially severed this relationship with the Promise Neighborhood,” he wrote in his memo to the board.

A spokesman for M&T Bank said the bank continues to try to assess ways that it can make a positive impact at Bennett.

“We’re continuing to try to determine and assess ways that we can make a positive difference at Bennett,” said Michael Zabel, the spokesman.

School district spokeswoman Elena Cala said the October school choice plan was not written with specific schools in mind, and that the district’s time line coincided with meetings with state officials and their directives.

Both Bennett and MLK have been in dire straits for years. They were among the first two Buffalo schools placed on state watch lists for consistently failing to meet state standards. That prompted the state in 2010 to award the district extra money to pay for additional resources at those schools, but those efforts showed little success and now that money has run out.

Superintendent Pamela C. Brown identified those two schools – along with Harvey Austin School – for closure at a meeting Dec. 18, and the district issued a request for proposals the following day.

Her recommendation came two days before a planned meeting with state leaders, when it was expected those officials would direct her to do that.

The district’s plan at that time was to close the three schools and reopen them either in partnership with or under the management of an outside agency, what is called an educational partnership organization or one that handles charter school conversions. Cala said that new plans for Harvey Austin will be presented in the near future.

Applicants had until Jan. 27 to submit their plans. The three plans that were submitted were presented to the staff at the schools and rejected.

Those applicants included the Baltimore Curriculum Project, which has converted several Baltimore schools into charter schools.

On Friday, the organization’s president, Laura Doherty, said she had not been notified that their application was rejected. Doherty said she inquired about its status several weeks ago and was told it was still being reviewed. No one had followed up with her with any questions or to discuss what she presented.

“We haven’t heard a thing,” she said. “I hope they get it worked out and I hope they get the kids what they need.”

It is not clear if the organization is still being considered for Harvey Austin.

The tight deadline also limited teachers at Bennett, who were trying to put together plans for a teacher-led school. The group started researching the model after Brown put out the call for potential partners, but teacher Kevin Coady said they were still conducting research when the deadline passed.

In an email to board members last weekend, Brown indicated that because of the lack of quality applicants, the district is pursuing another option to close the schools and reopen them with new science- and career-focused programs.

District Parent Coordinating Council President Samuel L. Radford III said he was aware state officials had warned that the plan requiring the closure and relaunch of schools to accommodate student transfers was aggressive.

“In order for us to find an acceptable partner between the months of December and February, everything would have to be perfect,” Radford said. “You’d have to find the perfect partner with the perfect background, who has all the resources available to them to open a school by July 1. It would have to be almost a miracle for that to happen.”

“The administration, that was overly optimistic and didn’t deliver, won’t get any consequences,” Radford said. “Only the parents and the students will get the consequences for that.”

Sampson’s memo to the board indicates the district was supposed to submit plans to the state Education Department by March 1. It did not submit the two plans until March 12.

Even then, the submitted plans – copies of which were obtained by The Buffalo News – appear to be incomplete or include inaccurate information.

For example, on the Bennett plan, when asked the name of the principal of the phase-out school – which would be Bennett – the plan states “Unknown.”

But the current principal, Terry Ross, is listed as the principal for the new school that will take its place.

Both plans also say the superintendent recommended the relaunch of the schools to the board on Jan. 8. Brown actually presented the plans during a Dec. 18 committee meeting. The board meeting scheduled for Jan. 8 was rescheduled because of weather.

State officials will now review the submitted plans to determine if they will be accepted.

“We have received but have not yet reviewed draft plans from the district on the restructuring of Bennett and MLK schools,” Deputy Education Commissioner Ken Slentz wrote in an email.

“We expect to see comprehensive details which make clear that the district has been thoughtful in designing schools that have rigorous curriculum, innovative and cohesive approaches to instruction, and excellent learning opportunities and appropriate supports for the children.”

Staff writer Sandra Tan contributed to this report. email: tlankes@buffnews.com