State board approves novel charter expansion plan
New Bedford charter would integrate enrollment with district system
THE STATE EDUCATION BOARD approved a proposal to allow a New Bedford charter school to expand as part of an unusual partnership with the city’s district schools that would break down some of the barriers that have traditionally separated the two systems.
Under the plan approved by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education on Tuesday morning, the Alma del Mar charter school will be allowed to open a new K-8 campus enrolling up to 450 students. But rather than draw from a citywide lottery, the school’s enrollment process will be integrated with the New Bedford district system and it will serve as the neighborhood school for students living in an area in the northwest corner of the city.
There are several steps remaining before the innovative agreement can be put in place, and the board also approved a plan that Education Commissioner Jeff Riley put forward as a back-up plan if the necessary approvals can’t be secured for the district-charter collaboration. Under the back-up proposal, which the board also approved, Alma del Mar would be allowed to add 594 new seats under the traditional charter model, with a citywide lottery to enroll students and no coordination with the district system.
Riley and Education Secretary Jim Peyser hailed the partnership plan as an innovative way forward in the face of the standoff that has long pitted charter and district schools against each other.
But Max Page, vice president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, denounced the plan as “extortion” by telling New Bedford it will face an even larger charter expansion if the partnership plan is not adopted. “You have weaponized the charter expansion process, holding a gun to the head of the city, its students, and its parents,” he told the board.
The plan still must clear two hurdles: approval by the New Bedford school committee and city council of the transfer of the former Kempton Elementary School to Alma del Mar, and legislation on Beacon Hill to allow neighborhood-based enrollment at a new Alma del Mar charter school, something not allowed under the existing state charter school law.
There are some signs that the road to legislative approval may not be a smooth one. State Rep. Chris Hendricks, a freshman New Bedford lawmaker who took office earlier this month, was quoted in a state education department press release last Monday praising the agreement. “The compromise reached between New Bedford and Alma is very encouraging,” he said in the statement. “I am excited that Alma will be able to grow at the new location with children from the immediate neighborhood.”
By Friday, however, Hendricks apparently had a change of heart. His office issued a press release saying he now opposes any expansion by the school.
“New Bedford’s current financial condition is very precarious,” Hendricks said in a letter he sent to members of the state education board. ” The existing reimbursement formula for charter schools has left New Bedford with astronomical deficits in education spending. The only way to reverse course is to deny Alma’s application outright.”
Sen. Mark Montigny, who represents New Bedford, did not return a call last week about the expansion proposal.
The collaboration plan, which Riley first unveiled last week, would mark the first time a Massachusetts charter school integrated its enrollment process with that of a district system. Charter schools are publicly funded, but operate independent of district systems, usually with non-union teachers.
Riley’s proposal came after a series of meetings he had in recent weeks with New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell and the director of the Alma del Mar charter school, Will Gardner. Alma del Mar currently operates a K-8 charter school in New Bedford with about 450 students. It applied to the state for approval to expand by adding 1,188 new seats and opening two new K-8 schools.
Riley proposed authorizing instead 450 new seats under the collaborative charter-district plan. The plan was approved by the state board on Tuesday with nine votes in favor, one member voting no, parent appointee Mary Ann Stewart, and teachers union representative Edward Doherty abstaining. In a separate vote, the board approved by a 9-2 vote the back-up proposal for 594 seats under the traditional charter structure. Stewart and Doherty voted no.
Under the collaborative plan, the city would also convey to Alma del Mar at no cost a shuttered former city elementary school to use for its new school. Mitchell has said a neighborhood-based charter school represents the best outcome for the district, which was otherwise facing an even larger charter expansion that would have drawn students from across the city.District officials say citywide charter enrollment is particularly damaging to local school finances, as they are not able to shed fixed facilities and personnel costs when a charter draws a student or two from each classroom across a district.