GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

November 28, 2012

Charter leaders stand by school, finances

By Marjorie Nesin
Staff Writer

---- — A former teacher Wednesday depicted the Gloucester Community Art School’s finances as “desperate,” and a state site review that suggested the school’s enrollment and finances are not sound.

But local charter school officials maintained Wednesday that the school is financially viable.

State Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Mitchell D. Chester presented a largely negative site review of the school, including questioning the school’s financial vitality, at a state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education meeting Tuesday. And, Chester said that a revocation of the school’s charter in this, its third year, was in his “realm” of possibilities for a recommendation for the state board’s December meeting.

Meanwhile, some of the school’s former teachers also called into question whether the school was actually getting by, with limited supplies, curriculum materials and technological equipment.

But, the charter school’s chairman of the school’s Board of Trustees, James Caviston, pointed Wedneday to financial improvements at the school — including the securing of a large anonymous donation before the end of the calendar year and another donation at the beginning of next year, a $200,000 line of credit granted to the school from a regional bank, and an agreement with a landlord who intends to be lenient if the school runs into financial hardship.

Caviston said those should all be reasons for the state board of education to allow the school to carry on through the five-year time frame that state officials have used as precedent.

”What is wrong with us having the five years that Chester gives everyone else?” Caviston said in a telephone interview. “People should be congratulating us on our ability to get by on such scarce resources.”

Caviston agreed with the sentiment that budgets were tight, but said the school pulled through and said is reaching a comfortable position.

”We’re going to have problems buying supplies, absolutely. There’s a lot of things we had to cut back on,” Caviston said. “We cut it very tight. There’s no question about that.”

Carol Kennedy-Hurley, a special education teacher who left a job at the school in July, said the cut was just too tight for teachers, whom she said had bought their own supplies, resorted to using their personal computers for work, and taught classes without access to textbooks.

”There was no curriculum or instructional materials bought (by the school),” Kennedy-Hurley said Wednesday. “What we bought, we bought out of our own personal funds, to the degree we were buying printer ink, lined paper — it was desperate.”

The state’s site review reported “significant deficiencies” in Title I finance documentation and documentation of debit card purchases. And, Kennedy-Hurley said, teachers were also “kept completely out of the loop with money.” The school since has halted their debit card usage and implemented a Title I assessment program, according to the review.

Kennedy-Hurley’s name was the witnessing signature on what has become a controversial $75,000 September 2011 loan but she said Wednesday she was unaware of what she was signing at the time. The school borrowed the $75,000 loan with a $2,500 return from a woman who later participated in the school’s site review — Diana Lam, the head of school at another charter school in Boston. State Education Commissioner Mitchell D. Chester, after hearing about the loan at the state board meeting Tuesday, reported the transaction to State Auditor Suzanne Bump, who was already in the process of auditing the school. Chester called the loan “unusual.”

Kennedy-Hurley said she was standing at a copy machine outside of then-Executive Director Tony Blackman’s door on that September school day, when Blackman asked her to come into his office and sign a document as a witness, and she complied without taking time to read the document, she said.

”I was just dragged in and told ‘we need a signature’,” Kennedy-Hurley said.

Though charter school opponents have questioned the Board of Trustees’ lack of a role in approving this specific loan and others, school officials maintain that handling loans and grants was solely up to Blackman, who eliminated his own director’s position in the face of a new budget crunch this fall, but who remains on the Board of Trustees.

”There’s nothing secretive about this loan,” Caviston said.

Marjorie Nesin can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3451, or at mnesin@gloucestertimes.com.