The Gloucester Community Arts Charter School is down to two finalists for an equivalent school principal's post three months after an initial state deadline, and the state Department Education has asked for a revised budget based on three dozen fewer students than charter officials say they have coming in next fall.
But with a state "status review" on Gloucester's charter program looming in two weeks, GCAS officials are optimistic the independent public school is on track to go forward toward the 2011-2012 school year — and well beyond.
The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education required the school to hire a director of education by Feb. 1, the Charter School's trustees presented a formal request for an extension in mid March, citing that the school's current budget could not have afforded the post through the end of the current school year.
The February deadline was one of eight conditions the state required the school to meet to have its "probation" status lifted in December, with others including adding a member with public sector experience to the Board of Trustees, filing a special education plan and a financial viability plan.
Nancy LaBrie, spokeswoman for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, would not outline specifics as to which conditions the school had or had not met; she said only that the charter school's trustees will present a full update and status report to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education at the May 24 meeting.
Tony Blackman, Gloucester Community Arts' executive director, said he's optimistic about the meeting and review of the school's status.
But residents who have persisted in fighting the school — largely on the basis of the financial impact it has on the city's public school district — believe otherwise.
"Based on a fairly consistent history of not complying with obligation and ignoring response, the (Department of Elementary and Secondary Education) should look at the situation and say 'enough's enough," said Jason Grow, a former city councilor and one of the 15 parents who filed a lawsuit aimed at blocking the charter school's continued operation.
Blackman said the school's March petition for a state extension followed the trustees' decision to search for an overall head of schools rather than a director of education, a position that more specifically just addresses curriculum.
That decision, said Blackman, came because the school's enrollment for the next school year is expected to jump from below 100 to as many as 202 students.
He said the school is looking to appoint its head of school this week.
Despite charter officials' own enrollment projections, however, the state has notified Gloucester Community Arts that the school's budget for fiscal 2012, which begins July 1, will receive tuition funding for 182 students, according to an April 21 e-mail sent to Blackman from Barry Barnett, from the Education Department's charter school office.
The state did not accept the school's enrollment numbers of 202 students because of problems with the way the school keeps enrollment records. Barnett wrote that, the way the school has kept records has made accurate accounting "difficult."
"The purpose of your budget is to demonstrate that at that enrollment number your school's educational mission and obligations will be fulfilled, all legal requirements met, and that your school will remain a viable organization" wrote Barnett.
Barnett also asked the school to submit a budget based on 165 enrolled students.
Blackman said the 165-student estimate marked a conservative budget for the charter school.
"(It) is what any organization would do," he said, of spending based on an enrollment shortfall. That figure, he said, would "have a conservative enough projection with some flexibility."
City school officials have noted that, while the charter school's initial enrollment fell from some 120 students to 90 prior to the start of the current school year, the school only had some 62 students at its opening. The school's funding is based on a per-student basis, and is thus tied closely to its verifiable enrollment.
Blackman noted, however, that the verified 182-student estimate would more than double the size of the charter school's current enrollment, When the school confirmed its current enrollment in March, it counted 71 students certified by the state as enrolled for the 2010-2011 school year.
The new enrollment projections also come as the charter school continues to move forward with two additional grades — Grade 3 and Grade 8 — in the fall.
Blackman said the end game toward naming a new head of school in the days ahead takes charter officials back to their initial model, when the board had Jane O'Connor set to start as the charter's head of schools last summer and fall.
Amid simmering questions concerning the school's viability — it ultimately opened in modular buildings at the former cape Ann Medical center in Blackburn Industrial Park, and did so nearly four weeks late after a number of city and state permitting issues — O'Connor left the charter school before it even opened its doors and instead took a job at George Stevens Academy in Blue Hill, Maine.
Her exit, combined with the permitting issues and three false starts to open in a temporary location, led state Commission of Education Mitchell D. Chester, at one point, to declare the school seemed no longer "viable."
But when charter parents and local charter officials pressed ahead with the school's opening — one day before their charter would have expired — Chester and the state ed board gave it clearance to continue on probation through last December.
The state board lifted the probationary status with the conditions that remain in place heading into the May 24 meeting.
Another of those conditions was to improve the makeup of the Board of Trustees, and Blackman confirmed that James Caviston, an attorney who lives in Essex and is former CFO of the Renco corporation, has joined the panel of trustees.
The board originally nominated him in November, though he didn't join the board until last month. Caviston, who also serves as president of seARTS, could not be reached for comment on this story.
Steven Fletcher can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3455, or at email@example.com.