Two suburban school districts have told Buffalo Public Schools leaders they are willing to explore taking a limited number of city students whose parents want them transferred out of their underperforming schools.
Buffalo school leaders haven’t identified which districts are expressing interest because formal discussions have yet to take place, but superintendents in several districts, including Sweet Home, say they haven’t ruled out the possibility.
“In ’14-’15, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a relatively small number of students take advantage of this,” said Donald A. Ogilvie, superintendent of Erie 1 Board of Cooperative Educational Services. “But it would only be after all of the implications that only the state can answer are addressed and that boards of education are comfortable with their own capacities to accept additional students.”
Superintendents from Erie and Niagara counties met recently to hear more details about a Buffalo student transfer plan that includes the possibility of sending some Buffalo students to schools in other districts to satisfy federal requirements that allow students to transfer out of underperforming schools.
Since then, two school districts have followed up to express interest in taking a limited number of students to fill open seats in classrooms, according to Buffalo school officials.
“We’re hoping that sometime (this month) we will begin a more intensive dialogue with districts that have demonstrated an interest,” said Will Keresztes, chief of student support services for Buffalo Public Schools.
Sweet Home School Board members discussed the possibility at a recent board retreat and were “pretty much in consensus around the willingness to investigate more,” Superintendent Anthony J. Day said.
The earliest the district could consider taking students would be the 2014-’15 school year.
“We haven’t committed to anything because we still think there are questions that still have to be answered and issues that have to be addressed,” Day said. “But we haven’t shut the door to it, and we’ve asked for an opportunity to have more conversation.”
The discussions are taking place amid a backdrop of declining enrollments and tight budgets across the region. All but three school districts in Erie and Niagara counties have seen enrollments drop during the last five years, and the ability to fill an empty seat in a classroom with a student who brings additional revenue has intrigued some school board members.
But districts also are wary of the possibility that providing services to some special- needs students could cost more than the tuition they would receive.
Several school districts, including West Seneca, Cheektowaga-Maryvale and Williamsville, have policies that prohibit them from accepting out-of-district students whose parents pay tuition.
Changing those policies, Williamsville Superintendent Scott G. Martzloff said, could have other consequences.
“You’re really taking a very big chance when you open yourself up to all students from all districts to come and pay tuition,” Martzloff said. “There can be a number of scenarios where it could end up costing your local taxpayers more money. It’s the board’s responsibility to avoid that particular situation.”
Like other districts, Williamsville School Board members have considered the possibility of taking Buffalo students but haven’t taken action beyond discussing the idea at a Board of Education meeting.
Buffalo is still awaiting state approval of its transfer plan but is moving forward as if it has been approved. While the bulk of the plan involves moving students to other public or charter schools within the district, a component requires the district to explore the possibility of transferring students to schools outside the City of Buffalo.
Buffalo Superintendent Pamela C. Brown met with superintendents from area suburban schools in September, and that prompted discussions at local school board meetings about the possibility of filling open spaces in some classrooms with children from Buffalo. Details are still under discussion, but school administrators believe that once children transfer to a new district, they would remain in that district through graduation.
Some neighboring districts – including Kenmore-Tonawanda, Cheektowaga Central and West Seneca – have ruled out the possibility.
Those that have continued to explore the request have sought more details, including the amount of tuition Buffalo would pay and how the transferred students would affect school accountability scores that are measured from year to year.
“It’s difficult to really commit to anything until a lot of those questions have been answered,” said Jon T. MacSwan, superintendent of Cleveland Hill School District in Cheektowaga.
If students do transfer to other districts, it would likely be a relatively small number of students in younger grades, Keresztes said. Buffalo has received the largest number of school transfer requests from parents of students in first and second grades and around fifth and sixth grades.
Of the 2,110 students whose parents requested transfers, 325 have been placed in different schools within the district so far. Keresztes said the district has not found a lot of interest among parents it has contacted already about the possibility of attending school in another community.
“I think our families are more inclined to want to be served by a school in good standing in the district,” Keresztes said. “We are not getting an awful lot of response when we put that question to them about attending another district or a local charter school.”
While Buffalo school leaders are exploring the possibilities of working out agreements with other districts, Keresztes noted that the idea isn’t considered a long-term solution to addressing the needs of schools designated by the state as in its lowest categories of student achievement.
“The most important aspect of public school choice is improving each of our schools so that parents are not inclined to seek a transfer in the first place,” Keresztes said.