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Savarino Promises to Sue Over School 36 - Again

All the while, American students fall further behind.

On Tuesday, the Buffalo Common Council’s Community Development Committee voted unanimously in favor of selling the former Public School #36, in Allentown’s Days Park, to the Elmwood Village Charter School.

Developer Sam Savarino derailed the sale of the closed school building to Elmwood Village Charter School last year with an Article 78 suit accusing the city of skirting its own processes in order to favor Elmwood Village Charter School’s bid over his offer, which was for more money. At Tuesday’s meeting, Savarino told councilmembers he will sue again should the entire Common Council vote to approve the sale next week.

Here’s the saga, in brief:

• In 2006, Days Park residents learned that PS #36 was one of many schools that Superintendent James Williams intended to close. Those residents, fearing the blight imposed by a hulk of an empty building on the corner of the park, advocated against the closure with some success: They bought the school a couple extra years, in part because it would take time to make the nearby Herman Badillo School ready to absorb PS #36’s students. But Williams warned residents that closure was inevitable.

• Some Days Park residents began discussing possible reuses of the building after it closed with local developers. One of those developers was Savarino, who imagined the school transformed into apartments. The idea faded. PS #36 was slated to close in June 2009.

• In April 2009, Elmwood Village Charter School unveiled its proposal for the building: The state board that regulates charter schools had given permission for the Elmwood Village Charter School to expand, based on its laudable academic success rate and its financial stability. The school had a 20-year lease with its landlord at 124 Elmwood—who happens to be Savarino, a long-time charter school advocate—so they wanted a location nearby. PS #36 seemed perfect, and Days Park residents quickly rallied around the plan that would see the building continue to be used as a school. The process of determining the building’s value and winning the city’s approval of a sale began.

• Soon, however, Savarino returned to the picture: He wanted a shot at purchasing the building, too, for a proposed new charter school called West Buffalo Charter School, a K-4 institution whose charter could only be realized if it found a suitable location.

• Savarino offered $800,000 for the property, more than the $725,000 appraised value and far more than the $540,000 offered by the Elmwood Village Charter School. When the Council approved the sale to Elmwood Village Charter School at that price in March 2010, Savarino filed an Article 78 suit, arguing that the city had failed to abide by its own procedures for selling its properties and ignored the fair market value of the property. In July 2010, Judge Patrick NeMoyer agreed with Savarino and instructed the city to start the process again.

• Because of the neighborhood’s advocacy, both the Common Council and the Brown administration remained determined to find a way to deliver the vacant school to Elmwood Village Charter School. The city’s attorneys, taking heed of NeMoyer’s ruling, embarked on a sale by appraisal rather than sale by auction, allowing lawmakers to consider factors other than price in evaluating purchase offers: best uses of the property, community good, qualifications of the bidder, etc. In the end, after a much more deliberative appraisal process than had obtained in 2009, Elmwood Village Charter School once again offered $540,000. After some delay, Savarino returned with a bid of $800,000. Advised by the city’s law department that this time the city had followed its own laws, the Community Development Committee voted on Tuesday to move the sale to Elmwood Village Charter School forward.

At least two dozen advocates for approval of the sale attended Tuesday’s meeting: parents, students, neighbors, teachers, administrators. Liz Evans, chair of Elmwood Village Charter School’s board of trustees and mother of student there, cited the school’s academic success, its financial stability, its neighborhood support. Michael Risman, an attorney with Hodgson Russ who is representing the school, asserted the credentials of the appraiser who had arrived at the building’s price, and assured councilmembers that the latest sale process was very different from a public auction, where the highest responsible bid wins. Julia Hall, a Days Park resident whose daughter is entering fourth grade at Elmwood Village Charter School, praised the school for its outreach to the neighborhood, and insisted that residents would prefer an owner/occupant (that is, Elmwood Village Charter School) to a landlord and tenant (that is, Savarino and West Buffalo Charter School). John Sheffield, principal and executive director of Elmwood Village Charter School, warned councilmembers that West Buffalo Charter School would be an unwise gamble: It was entering the third year of its initial five-year charter and still had not opened its doors; it had failed to win state grants upon which its opening depended; its future, especially in comparison to the stable, successful Elmwood Village Charter School, was uncertain.

Savarino, in contrast, was the lone representative for his cause. He praised Elmwood Village Charter School, calling the school “a model tenant” and a fine example to the charter school movement. “I mean no disrespect to them or to Days Park residents,” Savarino said, but he explained that he had agreed to advocate for West Buffalo Charter School, which he claimed has no options other than the building on Days Park, and he would therefore advocate for the school until the end. He argued that his bid had merit and that the process had once again been skewed inappropriately.

After the meeting, Savarino said he harbored no illusions about what would happen next: The Common Council will approve the sale next week. He allowed that if he were not representing West Buffalo Charter School, he’d be cheering on Elmwood Village Charter School’s expansion into PS #36. “It’s a feel-good story, I understand that,” he said.

But as things stand, he said, he’ll sue. “I just don’t want this to come as a surprise to anyone,” he said.

geoff kelly

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