Westminster, Enterprise Charters Sue to Remain Open

Two lawsuits against Buffalo Board of Education seek to stop closures. The two schools have better test scores than 25 Buffalo public schools.

Westminster Community Charter School and Enterprise Charter School last week sued the Buffalo Board of Education in state Supreme Court seeking to keep the two schools open for their economically disadvantaged students.

Educational disruption and trauma for children and families during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially economically disadvantaged students, is well documented. Because of this, the state’s 351 approved public charter schools are all slated to continue operating, except these two in Buffalo.

Despite others’ recognition of the impact of COVID-19, the BPS board nonetheless voted on March 31, 2021 to close both schools, which together have about 950 students in grades K-8. This decision also came too late in the year for these students and families to either apply to other charter schools, or to take part in virtual tours of criterion-based BPS schools, further limiting their choices for next year. 

Enterprise and Westminster have been nimble and responsive in their instructional approaches throughout COVID. It is unclear what opportunities for in-person instruction would be available to these 950 students come fall. Buffalo public schools are also grappling with a technology hack that seems to have thrown their operations and record-keeping in disarray.    

Ninety-eight percent of students at Enterprise, and 94 percent at Westminster are considered “economically disadvantaged,” according to state Department of Education data from 2019-20. Enterprise has 58 faculty and staff, and Westminster has 77.

The two schools are seeking restraining orders to block their BPS board-ordered closings, effective June 30, 2021. The suits also seek to enjoin the BPS board from taking action to interfere with their abilities to operate until the court can fully consider the matter.

In papers filed last week  on behalf of Westminster, its Board of Trustees argued: “The BPS action involves the arbitrary and unlawful decision of a public school district and its board to close a charter school during an ongoing pandemic.” 

Additionally, the BPS board, “used outdated and incorrect standards when reviewing Westminster’s charter renewal application” – standards that the BPS board was contractually obligated to apply. And even under the BPS board’s “own outdated and faulty standards, Westminster still qualified for short-term renewal of its charter, and did not qualify for ‘non-renewal.’ ” 

Most students – 550 at Westminster and 403 at Enterprise – will likely have to enroll in  schools that are lower performing than either charter where they are now. The two schools have better test scores than 25 Buffalo public schools. The lawsuit also contends:

•The BPS board acted secretly to make the closing decisions, rather than publicly as required. Enterprise’s suit says, “On March 31, 2021, the BPS Board held a virtual ‘special meeting’ at which it very quickly went into Executive Session In fact, Board President Sharon M. Belton-Cottman was unwilling to have a “candid conversation” in public about closing the schools.

•Every indication was that the BPS Board planned to renew each school’s charter, and then reneged after that secret discussion;

•The BPS board failed to obtain community input in the form of public hearings about Enterprise and Westminster as part of the schools’ charter-renewal applications as required by New York State law;

•Throughout the renewal process, Belton-Cottman relayed that she was unaware that the BPS board was responsible for overseeing Westminster and Enterprise as their charter authorizer. 

The parents of Westminster and Enterprise are considering their own legal actions against the BPS board.