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New Astoria charter school put off 1 year

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When Bruce Blaine heard his daughter’s name called at a lottery held for the Our World Neighborhood charter school in April, he knew his soon-to-be kindergartner was guaranteed a spot in a school that sounded like a parent’s dream, offering small class sizes, individual attention and a diverse curriculum.

A month later, he got a letter announcing that the dream would be put on hold for a year.

Although the Our World Neighborhood charter school was originally scheduled to open in August with 250 students, an impasse in negotiations with the Variety Boys and Girls Club of Astoria has forced the school’s board of trustees to delay the opening for a year.

“It was not anticipated,” Blaine said. “We had just started thinking really in terms of this new school and had to shift gears.”

Michael Buonasora, the board’s treasurer, said the school would have been housed during its first year in a temporary prefabricated structure to be placed in Variety’s parking lot at 21-12 30th Rd. Nearly six months into negotiations and only weeks before the lease had to be signed, however, Variety hiked the security deposit the school would have to pay in order to lease the space.

“They felt we needed additional security, which we felt was excessive and which we didn’t have,” Buonasora said. “We were hoping they would drop that request until the last day. They didn’t, and we couldn’t sign.”

Peter Vallone Jr., a member of Variety’s board of trustees, said the security deposit was a stipulation from day one. The amount of security deposit was not disclosed.

“We tried as hard as we could to accommodate them, but our first interest is always to protect our club and its children,” he said. “Since they were an outside entity whose reliability we were unsure of, the deal didn’t go through.”

The State University of New York’s board of trustees, which granted the school its charter in January, set a deadline of May 15 for the school to find the site where it would open in August. Having missed that mark, the school has asked SUNY to delay the opening until August 2002 and allow the upcoming school year be used for planning.

The school trustees are also petitioning SUNY to allow them to freeze enrollment and the waiting list so students who were already admitted to the school will maintain their spots despite the delayed opening.

Charter schools were established in New York through a 1998 state law, which says any combination of parents, teachers, school administrators and community residents can apply to found a school that operates independently of the laws governing all other public schools.

Parents of the students accepted to the school in April’s lottery were informed of the delay in a letter sent out last month, and about 60 of them attended a meeting school organizers held May 31 to explain the problem.

“There was no one there who wanted to hang us,” Buonasora said. “Everyone was understanding and very supportive and willing to help us.”

May 15 was also the deadline by which parents of children who were to enroll in the school had to formally accept the placement. Out of 249 students admitted, 170 accepted their spots, an enrollment rate school trustees said was on target with their expectation that 25 to 30 percent of admitted students would decline the offer.

SUNY officials were supportive of the school and expected that the request for a delay would be granted when the SUNY board of trustees meets Tuesday.

“Finding a suitable facility is a huge challenge for the first year or for any number of years, because facilities are in short supply,” said Bob Bellafiore, president of the New York Charter Schools Institute, which administers charter school applications for the SUNY system.

“We think that the decision by the school to delay a year rather than enter into a lease that may not be in the best long-term interest of the school and the kids it serves is an example of wisdom,” he said.

But a delay will mean some uncertainties, especially for fifth graders. According to its charter, the school is to open with kindergarten through the fifth grade, adding a grade each year until it becomes a K-8 school.

Because the students originally admitted to the fifth grade will be sixth graders in August 2002, the charter would have to be changed in order for them to maintain their spots. School trustees were unsure whether that would happen.

Buonasora said the school’s board of trustees has refocused its attentions on securing a permanent site for its anticipated opening in August 2002.

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.

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