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By Mike Hudson and Dr. Chitra Selvaraj

With one Charter School up and running here and two more waiting for state approval, significant funds are being diverted from the Niagara Falls School District to pay for educational systems having no public oversight.

In a nutshell, Charter Schools practice what any sixth-grade civics student could tell you has no place in a democracy: Taxation without representation.

"Our school board is a taxing body and in order to have that authority, they have to be elected by the taxpayers who pay the taxes. They are accountable to the taxpayers, who can vote them out of office," said schools Superintendent Cynthia Bianco. "Well, that is not what is happening in the Charter Schools."

Like most things in life, the problem boils down to dollars and cents. Currently, there are about 330 students attending the Niagara Charter School and that is $3.6 million taken from state aid that would have normally gone to the district. And that lost revenue doesn't even take into account the $18.1 million reduction in state revenues over the past three years.

"So if you take another $3.6 million on top of the budget cuts we have already taken, what does that leave us in terms of the money we have here?" asked Tim Hyland, who worked at a Charter School before joining the city School District. "It affects our taxes, it affects the programs we have to keep here, and it really affects the kids who don't get into that Charter School."

The city School District faces problems the Charter Schools don't address, Bianco added.

"We have fixed costs. We built schools that have debt service that is backed up by the faith and full support of the state that based this on an enrollment of 7,000 to 7,500 kids," she said. "Not anticipating that these kids would suddenly be pulled out to go to these Charter Schools in their own storefront operations. So that's a huge drain on us. We continue to pay those full expenses."

The School District hasn't raised taxes in Niagara Falls for 18 years, something that might come to an end should a second Charter School be approved.

"We've always been very conscious of the financial picture and the tax levy over 18 is in recognition of that. But in one proposal that's out there, they're talking about 720 kids," Bianco said. "That would be a hit of more than $7 million."

To make matters worse, as many as 30 percent of teachers at Charter Schools don't have to be certified by the state, unlike the public schools, where all teachers are certified. Furthermore, the state doesn't require teachers in some Charter Schools to be unionized, meaning they can be paid significantly less than public school teachers.

As a consequence, students entering the public schools after attending Niagara Charter School are generally in need of remedial help in order to catch up with their classmates.

"The concept behind Charter Schools is that they should be attempting to do something that we don't do, something that is innovative and different, and we have not seen that yet," Bianco said. "We are doing it better than they are now at Niagara Charter and most certainly at the two that have been proposed."

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com June 7, 2011