With time short, New Bedford charter bill inches along

Deadline looms, but House vote paves way for a hearing

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

A CONTROVERSIAL and time-sensitive New Bedford charter school bill inched along on Beacon Hill Wednesday as the House sent the legislation to the Education Committee for review.

The bill’s passage is needed to implement a state-approved deal between city officials and the Alma Del Mar Charter School, which is seeking to open a new campus in New Bedford. Under the terms of the agreement approved in January by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, Alma Del Mar would be allowed to open a 450-seat campus for which students would be drawn from a neighborhood zone.

Last week, in a lightly attended House session, Rep. James Hawkins of Attleboro took the unusual step of blocking the bill’s referral to committee, saying the full House should have the chance to weigh in on charter school matters. Rep. Antonio Cabral, who lives in the city that sent the home rule petition to Beacon Hill, is among the lawmakers who oppose the bill, saying last week that anyone who wants to change the way charter schools are approached “ought to submit general legislation to be deliberated and debated in the Legislature.”

On Wednesday, however, it was Cabral who made the motion that led to the bill being sent to committee.

“I still don’t support it as written, but I think the time is right to move it on to a public hearing,” Cabral said. He said a hearing before the Education Committee would be the first opportunity for supporters and opponents to testify “on how they feel about this so-called agreement.”

In a statement, Cabral said he made the motion with the support of Reps. Christopher Hendricks and William Straus, who also represent parts of New Bedford. The other two House lawmakers who represent portions of the city, Reps. Christopher Markey and Paul Schmid, sponsored the bill.

The Senate will need to concur with the House’s referral for the bill to move to the committee.

The bill (HD 4174) would authorize the creation of the neighborhood zone and the transfer of a former elementary school property from New Bedford to Alma Del Mar. If it doesn’t pass, a backup plan approved by the education board would allow Alma Del Mar to instead open a 594-seat campus, using the citywide lottery process that is typical in charter school enrollment.

Riley has said he wants to reach a decision on which option will move forward by the end of May — which is Friday — because students would need to be re-assigned and he wants families to be able to plan for the new school year in September. He has not yet made a decision, according to education officials.

According to proponents of the charter school, it is 75 percent enrolled and parents who have already signed their children up are worried about whether they will be able to attend the school.

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Katie Lannan

State House News Service
Markey filed the bill on May 2, and it was referred to the House Rules Committee on May 13.

Giving lawmakers another opportunity to advance the measure, Markey had offered the New Bedford language as an amendment to a $41.1 million midyear spending bill the House passed Wednesday, but he withdrew it without any discussion or debate on the House floor.

The charter deal has been pitched by proponents as an innovative approach to education, but deep divisions over charter schools remain in the Legislature, where lawmakers are mindful of the rejection of a charter s school expansion ballot question in 2016. The House and Senate don’t appear in a rush to take up the bill – the branches don’t have any additional formal sessions scheduled this week, just informal sessions on Thursday.