After a week of confusion over a split vote, the Buffalo, N.Y., school board has officially rejected a bid to place a three-year moratorium on the expansion of charter schools.
The Sept. 29 decision allows the board to pursue its controversial plan to authorize a network of charter schools in the district. That plan had a broad margin of support on the nine-member board until this past May, when an election delivered six new members, some of whom oppose the largely independent public schools or are still making up their minds. (“Newcomers Elected to Buffalo School Board,” May 12, 2004.)
One of the new members, Ralph Hernandez, introduced a motion to impose a three-year waiting period before the district approved any more charter schools. At the board’s Sept. 22 meeting, four members voted against it, and four voted in favor. With eight votes cast, another new member, Janique S. Curry, decided to abstain, producing the 4-4 vote.
The split prompted disagreement among board members about the validity of the vote, and members agreed to seek procedural advice and revisit the issue in a week.
At the Sept. 29 meeting, the board’s lawyer, Joy Trotter, advised that the matter was a straightforward issue of state law, which says that in order for a public body of three or more members to take action, a majority of the total number of members on the panel must cast votes. That means that on the Buffalo school board, a motion must have five votes to pass.
The board thus concluded that the previous week’s split vote amounted to a defeat of the moratorium.
Authorizing its own charter schools, proponents say, will enable Buffalo to better control schools that might otherwise be operated by outside entities. Critics, including the local teachers’ union, are particularly concerned about the loss of state aid that follows each student from regular public schools to the charter schools.
Clarification of the moratorium vote didn’t appear to ease tension over the issue.
Mr. Hernandez said in an interview that he had hoped that a moratorium would provide a valuable window of time in which the board could examine the issues raised by charter schools. But he said he would drop his effort to get a moratorium passed because the issue had become so divisive on the panel.
“It’s clear I can’t get five votes for it,” he said. “It’s an exercise in futility.”
The Buffalo News editorialized that Ms. Curry had shirked her duty as a board member by avoiding a vote. But she defended her action.
“I’d do it again,” Ms. Curry, a grant-proposal writer at Buffalo State College, said in an interview. “The information about charter schools just keeps coming in, and it’s been so conflicting. There are positive and negative aspects. I’m a researcher, and when an issue comes before me, I delve into it until I have enough information to make a good decision.”
Ms. Curry said she was deluged with phone calls and e-mails before the vote on the moratorium, to the point that “it was just ridiculous.” Such pressure does nothing to help board members sort out the issue reasonably, she said.
The morning of the Sept. 22 vote, the district’s chief financial officer told the board that the Buffalo schools would spend $38.5 million on charter schools this school year. But the district was not expected to see any cost savings because charter schools have resulted in a loss of four students per class on average, too few to allow consolidation or cutbacks in overhead.
More Charters Granted
The 43,000-student district has authorized one charter school, but has eight others, authorized by the state, operating within its boundaries. Last week, it authorized two more, gave conditional approval to another, and agreed to allow an existing charter school to add a grade.
School board member Jack Coyle, who led the push for the charter network, said that increased opposition on the board means that charter advocates will have to work harder to present a sound case for their benefits, and take steps to ensure their disadvantages are minimized. They might need to lobby state legislators to revamp charter school funding to be more advantageous to the district, he said.
But he is worried that the heat around the issue will stymie productive discussion.
“It’s gotten to feel like talking about abortion,” he said. “There is no real debate. It’s either for or against, and there seems to be no middle ground.”