The New York State Board of Regents reversed a decision Monday its members made last month denying the Buffalo Academy of Science Charter School’s renewal application. The new decision follows a month of backlash from angry parents and charter school advocates and reauthorizes the school through June 2025.
The board also approved an expansion request of 144 students to be phased in over the next two school years so the school, commonly known as BuffSci, can add third and fourth grades.
“I am happy that we’re not going to spend our time dealing with these politics [anymore], but we’re going to refocus ourselves to education,” said BuffSci Executive Director Joseph Polat. “In this time of pandemic, we have a ton of things to do, and we were lost in track with this, I would say, nonsense thing going on.”
Several Regents voted against BuffSci during the board’s last monthly meeting on May 4 because the expansion request was tied to its renewal application, which came during a time of crisis in public education funding. Like district schools, charter schools are public and free to attend, but independently run, and critics have long argued that charters take money away from public school districts.
The application was also strongly opposed in May by Western New York Regent Dr. Catherine Collins, who told WBFO she was following the lead of Buffalo Public Schools, which has asked the state for a moratorium on new charter schools opening in Buffalo.
BuffSci opened in 2004 is one of the city’s oldest charter schools, as well as one of the highest-performing public schools in Buffalo. The May decision would have forced the school to close at the end of June—or potentially after one more year upon appeal—leaving at least current second grade students without a place at their school in the fall. The Board of Regents previously approved BuffSci’s request to add elementary school grades, and the addition of third and fourth grades will complete its growth to a K-12 school.
“I’m somebody who, for 60 years in public education in New York State, has stood for what’s in the best interest of kids,” said Regent Bevery Ouderkirk of the North Country, explaining why she decided to change her ‘no’ vote on BuffSci. “When I got thinking about that situation and jerking the kids going to third or fourth grade around, I thought, ‘this is not the right thing to do.’”
Several Regents expressed similar regrets Monday and even Collins agreed to approve the renewal and expansion after her firm opposition last month. But Collins argued the board should only renew BuffSci for three years instead of five, the maximum amount of time the board can reauthorize charter schools for and the term recommended by the New York State Department of Education (NYSED) Charter School Office.
Collins said her argument was based on an email she and at least one other Regent received from the Buffalo Teachers Federation that said BuffSci doesn’t have any teacher diversity.
“This school has, yes, all minority kids. No minority role model,” Collins said, citing the “information” she received.
Polat, who is himself an immigrant from Turkey, said that’s not true.
“Where do you get your information? Is the Charter School [Office] your source for your information or an email or someone just told you that this information is true?,” he asked.
The Charter School Office evaluates charter school performance, as it did for BuffSci, and makes recommendations to the Board of Regents based on a framework of 10 benchmarks that range from academic performance to school culture and financial management. Staff diversity is not part of that framework or charter school law, according to the office’s Executive Director David Frank. Both Frank and Polat also said BuffSci does have teachers of color.
“We have a lot of African American teachers,” Polat said, speaking to WBFO in a phone interview shortly after the new vote. “We have actually a high rate of minority staff.”
Polat didn’t provide the current rate, but a 2017 staff survey conducted by Bellwether Education Partners found that about 30% of BuffSci’s staff identified as a race other than white. That’s more than double the citywide rate of 14%, according to the 2019 NYSED Educator Diversity Report, which found that teachers of color are underrepresented statewide.
“It’s a nationwide problem. It’s not just our problem,” Polat said. “We achieve nine out of 10 [Board of Regents] benchmarks and the other one is a work in progress, and now they are trying to say that, ‘Okay, we set those benchmarks but don’t worry about those. Now let’s talk about something else.’”
The only benchmark BuffSci falls short on is meeting enrollment targets for students with disabilities and English Language Learners. That was a big topic of conversation at the May 4 meeting but hardly mentioned Monday. BuffSci is also closer to meeting its enrollment goals than other Buffalo area charter schools recently reauthorized by the Board of Regents, including the Charter School for Applied Technologies and Health Sciences Charter School.
“Charter schools individually and as a group are not disinterested in issues of diversity and improvement and things like that, a lot of the things that the Regents were raising as questions and concerns,” said Anna Hall, CEO of the Northeast Charter Schools Network. “But it’s never appropriate in public policy to make an example of anyone’s school, especially when it’s in the context of incredibly intractable issues that lots of schools are struggling with, both in Buffalo and across the state.”
The majority of Regents agreed and Collins’ motion for a three-year renewal was voted down. Several Regents also voiced concern about the effort to change the vote at the last minute.
“We had all month to talk about this. There were a number of conversations going back and forth behind the scenes in response to the hundreds—I don’t know about anybody else, but I got hundreds—of emails over the course of the month,” said Regent Nan Eileen Mead of New York City. “I can’t believe in the eleventh hour that we’re sitting here trying to change the parameters of this vote from a five-year to a three-year.”
“I think we’ve got to be careful and consistent in what it is we do, and how we do it,” said Member at Large Lester Young, Jr. “You can’t make up things as you go along.”
Hall echoed those concerns about the Regents’ decision-making process.
“I think the important takeaway for charter schools, individually and a sector, is that we need to do a better job of communication, of mythbusting, of talking to people like the Regents so they understand what charter schools are and what they are not,” she said. “But on the flip side, we also need partners in the Regents whose responsibility it is to represent all children, all students, not just district students.”
After a few minutes of voting confusion on the two competing motions, the Regents, including Collins, voted unanimously, with one abstention, in favor of BuffSci’s renewal.
When her name was called to vote, Collins responded, “I can’t breathe. Yes. I know everyone understands what that means.”