New Bedford charter legislation delayed again
Jehlen motion stalls bill in the Senate
SEN. PAT JEHLEN of Somerville, an outspoken charter school critic, threw a procedural roadblock in front of a New Bedford home rule petition to advance a novel charter school plan developed by state education officials, casting further doubt on prospects for the proposal, which the state’s education commissioner said had to be approved by the end of this week to remain viable.
Jehlen offered a motion in Thursday’s informal session of the Senate that automatically tabled a proposal to send the measure to the Legislature’s education committee until the chamber’s next session. Her motion pushes off such a move until at least Monday, and means it’s unlikely there could be a hearing until at least late next week on the bill, which would allow Alma del Mar Charter School to open a 450-student campus that would serve a defined area of New Bedford, with enrollment coordinated with the city’s district school system.
Jehlen said she wanted to ensure at least a week’s notice before a hearing on the proposal before the education committee, but her move seemed as much designed to thwart any chance of the plan going through.
The move comes a week after a House member made a similar motion to the delay the bill in that chamber.
The plan required approval by New Bedford’s School Committee and City Council, both of which signed off on the proposal, but it has stalled in the Legislature, which must authorize the move to a neighborhood-based system.
In backing the proposal, the state education board concurrently approved a backup plan put forward by Riley authorizing Alma del Mar to open a traditional charter school serving 594 students if the neighborhood plan did not receive necessary approvals.
The proposal has roiled the state’s education waters, and comes three years after a divisive ballot question proposing to raise the cap on charter schools. The campaign to pass the ballot question, which was run by Gov. Charlie Baker’s top political strategists, was defeated decisively, an outcome that has emboldened charter critics, led by the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the state’s largest teachers union.
Earlier this month the MTA filed suit to block the New Bedford plan, saying the proposal would set a precedent for charter schools being woven into the fabric of district school systems.
In a letter sent to all legislators, the union called the proposal a “strong-armed” move by the Baker administration in face of opposition to raising the charter cap, and said New Bedford capitulated to the state’s “extortionate” plan to authorize a larger charter school if the neighborhood school was not endorsed.
When the home rule petition came before the House last week, Rep. James Hawkins offered a procedural motion that prevented the bill from being referred to the education committee until the House reconvened yesterday.
Hawkins told State House News Service he blocked the bill “because it’s a charter school issue.” According to the News Service, the Attleboro lawmaker is a retired teacher and former district coordinator for the Mass. Teachers Association.
Jehlen said her “only goal is that there be an opportunity for adequate notice for the hearing on the bill.” Jehlen was a strong opponent of the 2016 charter school ballot question and received backing in her reelection race that year from the Mass. Teachers Association PAC, but she declined to say whether she opposed the New Bedford proposal.
“I would not want to comment on that now,” she said. “But I do think it is worth scrutiny. It’s an important issue for New Bedford, and it’s an important issue for the Commonwealth.”
She told State House News Service she would “have questions” about the bill, and said New Bedford “had a gun to its head” when city leaders embraced the plan, a reference to Riley’s vow to authorize a larger conventional charter if the plan doesn’t go through.
Jehlen said before making her motion she tried unsuccessfully to reach Sen. Jason Lewis, the Senate co-chair of the education committee, to get his assurance that there would be at least a week’s notice before a hearing. She said she was also concerned that Rep. Antonio Cabral, a New Bedford lawmaker who opposes the bill, was traveling in Portugal and would not be back in time if a hearing were scheduled for Monday. Jehlen said she learned later on Thursday that Cabral would be back.
Three of the state reps whose districts include parts of New Bedford say they’re against the plan, while two other lawmakers representing the city are cosponsors of the measure.Sen. Mark Montigny, who represents all of New Bedford, has not taken a public position on the proposal. He issued a statement Thursday afternoon that seemed to continue to straddle the issue, saying he asked his colleagues not to hold up the bill, but respects their right to do so. “I asked members not to object today but respect the expressed concern that the upcoming hearing have adequate notice,” he said.
Riley has said it’s urgent that the Legislature take up the measure quickly in order to allow enrollment plans for the school to be finalized. His office declined to comment Thursday afternoon on whether he’s prepared to abandon the proposal and go to the backup plan for a larger, conventional charter school in New Bedford.