OLEAN — The Olean City School District may still have to evaluate Archbishop Walsh Academy and Southern Tier Catholic School, as the New York State Education Department is moving ahead with its “substantial equivalency” guidelines despite April’s court ruling.
The state Education Department had issued a mandate in November requiring public school districts to evaluate all independent and religious schools within their boundaries by the end of 2021, and then again every five years.
However, a New York State Supreme Court judge struck down the mandate in April, ruling the state Education Department did not follow proper procedure because it did not go through the State Administrative Procedure Act, or SAPA, which requires protocol like a notice and comment period.
The state Education Department announced late last month it now plans to push the new substantial equivalency guidelines through the SAPA process, including a public comment period set to begin early next month.
“Nonpublic schools are an important part of the educational landscape in New York state,” said state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia. “With the regulations, we will ensure that all students — no matter which school they attend — have the benefit of receiving the education state law says they must have. By following the State Administrative Procedure Act process, we are addressing the Court’s concerns.”
Thomas Manko, president and principal of Archbishop Walsh and Southern Tier Catholic, said Wednesday he was not surprised to hear the state plans to move forward with the SAPA process, adding he’ll work with OCSD Superintendent Rick Moore to make the evaluation “meaningful.”
“I have to be in a position of readiness, and should it come back we’ll be able to participate fully and be fully committed and provide whatever documents are required by the process,” he said.
Manko has been against the mandate, arguing the state Education Department should handle the evaluations itself.
“I really think it’s unfair to Olean to put them in that position,” Manko said. “The state didn’t give them any resources, time, personnel, money, to conduct these reviews.”
Both he and Moore have also acknowledged the mandate puts their respective schools in an awkward position considering they try to be good partners as the public school and largest private school in the city.
The OCSD has an enrollment of approximately 2,000 students, while Archbishop Walsh and Southern Tier Catholic, the only private, Catholic school in the area, has approximately 190 students.
Manko has said he believes only Southern Tier Catholic, the K-8 portion of the campus, is subject to evaluation by the OCSD.
Under the mandate, the OCSD would also have to evaluate New Life Christian School, a nondenominational school of about 75 students.
The state Education Department mandated the new substantial equivalency guidelines in large part to ensure ultra-Orthodox Jewish private schools in the New York City area are providing a basic, secular education.
The New York State Association of Independent Schools, which represents nearly 200 private schools throughout the state, opposed the measure, and filed a lawsuit conjoined with other suits by the New York State Council of Catholic School Superintendents and Parents for Educational and Religious Liberty.
While the Catholic schools raised several issues, state Supreme Court Justice Christina L. Ryba agreed with them that the state did not follow proper procedure.
While the state Education Department argued the requirement was simply an interpretation of the longstanding state law that private schools provide a “substantially equivalent” education to public schools, Ryba ruled it was actually a new rule and should have gone through SAPA.
Manko said he doesn’t plan to personally participate in the public comment period, which lasts until Sept. 2. He said he’d deferred to Dr. Michael LaFever, superintendent of schools for the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo.
“We’ll be good partners in this thing,” he said of he and OCSD officials. “We’re going to try to make it meaningful.”