By Richard Gaines and Marjorie Nesin
---- — The state commissioner of education has recommended the closing of the Gloucester Community Arts Charter School at the end of the spring term.
Dated last Friday, the written recommendation by state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester to revoke the charter of the troubled and controversial experiment in state-funded alternative education will be an agenda item for the Board of Education’s meeting next Tuesday.
Chester’s decision to advocate the closing of the charter school, which opened in September 2010 on a campus adapted from a doctors’ office in Blackburn Industrial Park, is sure to spark heated debate within the city where opponents, including the core of the School Committee, backed a lawsuit challenging the legality of the original charter.
Though charter schools are generally granted a five-year start-up period, the possibility of the state board revoking the school’s charter after its third year became very real at a Nov. 27 meeting, when Chester told the state and charter boards that “revocation (of the school’s charter) is very clearly in (the) realm of possibilities.”
The process of revoking the school’s charter begins with the commissioner giving a formal recommendation to the board, being the Dec. 7 revocation recommendation. Next charter school officials will present their case before the state board at the Dec. 18 meeting. Then the state board will vote on whether or not to revoke the charter. The charter board can go on to appeal that decision.
The charter board had met with the state Board of Education last Thursday, reportedly to discuss the charter’s place as an agenda item at the Dec. 18 meeting. At a Gloucester Community Arts Board of Trustees meeting last Wednesday night, the trustees discussed re-chartering as a Horace Mann charter school — a state-funded innovative school that would be part of the public school district, but would still run rather independently — but decided to hold off on sharing the re-chartering idea with the state board.
The school, which serves approximately 130 kindergartners through eighth-graders, received a poor three-year review from the state in October.
Tony Blackman, the charter’s original executive director, left his position this year, purportedly as an cost-cutting measure, though he remains on the school’s board of trustees.
The review found numerous issues at the charter school, including problems with fiscal and academic performance and board oversight.
“School administrators at the (school) have not demonstrated an ability to ensure an orderly environment or execute a plan to remedy poor academic performance,” Chester wrote in a lengthy memo to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.
“For the past three years, the school’s high rates of student attrition, low enrollment and staff turnover indicate an overall lack of organizational and financial viability. Additionally,” the commissioner wrote, “since opening its doors on Sept. 23, 2010, (Gloucester Community Arts Charter School) has failed to adhere to the terms of its charter by providing the academic program as promised in the school’s mission and vision.
“I have concluded that GCACS is no longer a viable organization,” Chester wrote.
Marjorie Nesin and Richard Gaines may be reached at 978-283-7000, or firstname.lastname@example.org.