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School Colors

A meeting on Saturday, held to publicly unveil a nonprofit group’s plans to convert two Buffalo public schools—East High School and Waterfront—to charter schools ended up displaying some other things: the disparity of school-improvement visions and philosophies in the city, and the mistrust that attends these disagreements.

Chameleon Community Schools Project, a consultant and advocate for charter schools, invited parents, teachers, school staff, and officials to learn about its pending application to New York State to convert and run the schools—although there was disagreement among the 25-30 there about how adequate the notice was. According to Steven Polowitz, a founder of Chameleon and its lawyer, about two weeks ago, the state education department accepted the organization’s letter of intent and gave permission for it to submit a complete application. If the Board of Regents was eventually to approve this, it would be the first of such school conversions in Buffalo. All of the city’s existing charter schools were created from the ground-up, from scratch. Chameleon is attempting to do this under one of the four reform models New York permits for failing schools, a category both schools have officially been in for a couple of years. Indeed, this proposal under the Restart model is the first in the state according to Louis Petrucci, president of the Buffalo Board of Education. According to Polowitz, Chameleon must submit its application by July 31. The Regents will decide one way or the other by the second week of December.

It was the short timeline that produce the first expressions of concern and some objections on Saturday at the Sherman L. Walker Community Center on William Street. Chameleon’s summary of its proposed programmatic changes—smaller class sizes, a longer school day and year, specialized professional personnel, including social workers and librarians—didn’t meet any adverse reaction, except for a Waterfront teacher’s (she declined to give her name) objection that the school’s teachers and staff had devised a similar program plan last year, sans charter conversion.

But a number of people protested that the plan was being rushed forward with too little input from the community. Valerie Nolan, Chameleon’s executive director, stressed that her group was subject to a strict schedule imposed by the state, but several people responded that the effort should be postponed for a year, particularly now that Buffalo has a new school superintendent who, inevitably, will know little or nothing of this application. Nolan told them that she and her colleagues were unwilling to keep Waterfront and East students trapped in failing schools for another year, that it was critical to close and reopen them as soon as possible. Earlier, Polowitz had told the meeting, “We’re facing a crisis of frightening proportions” in Buffalo’s public schools.

But some audience members voiced serious reservations about the Chameleon proposal as it was laid out at this meeting. The unidentified Waterfront teacher accused the organizers of not respecting the dedicated efforts of the school’s teachers. Asked about the cost and affordability of Chameleon’s proposal—especially of reduced class size—Nolan claimed that the $12,500 per student that the state gives Buffalo’s public system would be adequate to implement the charter reform at the two schools because charter school organizers “don’t have the structure” that the school district does. But Chameleon will receive a management fee for running the schools if the Regents approves their application, Polowitz told Artvoice in a telephone interview.

Retired Buffalo public school teacher Peg Metzger demanded further answers about both money and teachers’ rights: “How much do they make [under a charter regime]? Are they still part of the New York retirement system?” She didn’t receive a direct answer, but an earlier observation by Nolan may have contained a hint of it: “We design a school and then write the [union] contracts to fit the design.”

Minutes after Metzger’s question, there was a much blunter response from Emilio Fuentes, termed a “co-lead applicant” on the agenda distributed to attendees. “There are a lot of adults who are going to get a haircut: no benefits, lower salaries…I’m sorry, but I’m not interested in adults; I’m interested in children.”

Standing near the back of the meeting room, prominent veteran community activist Samuel A. Herbert growled, “That’s cold, cold.” (Later, he told Artvoice that this amounted to an attack on the already low morale of teachers and that he has been advocating for separate funding streams for public and charter schools.)

East High vice principal Benjamin Willis asked Fuentes, “How could you say this when the adults in the building are connected to the children?”

In a telephone interview this week, school board president Petrucci said he’d recently been surprised to show up for a meeting with Polowitz and been apprised of the charter conversion plan with no prior warning. He pointed out that a board-appointed committee of educational specialists, parents, and the teachers union president, Philip Rumore, had last year rejected a proposal for Chameleon to run three Buffalo schools.

He said he’d been in touch with state officials and was confident “…The state isn’t going to approve anything the board doesn’t approve and the board won’t approve anything not approved by administrators, parents and teachers.”

As to Chameleon’s characterization of its consultations with the state education department, Petrucci said, “In my estimation, they’re taking liberties with what the state’s said.”

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