Gov. Deval Patrick's office lobbied the state education commissioner to endorse the Gloucester Community Arts Charter School out of a fear that its rejection would alienate powerful allies and potentially derail the administration's school policy agenda, according to documents obtained by the Times.
Secretary of Education Paul Reville, Patrick's top aide on schools, asked Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester in an e-mail to support the Gloucester charter, which faced vehement local opposition, eight days before Chester gave it his thumbs-up Feb. 13.
Chester's endorsement of the school came against the advice of charter school experts in his own office, which had recommended that the Gloucester application "not be approved," along with the two other charter bids this year.
In his request to Chester, acquired by the Times through the state's public records law, Reville warned that rejecting all three charters would get the Patrick administration "permanently labeled as hostile" to charter schools, something that would "cripple us with a number of key, moderate allies like the (Boston) Globe and Boston Foundation,"
"My inclination is to think that you, I and the Governor all need to send at least one positive signal in this batch, and I gather that you think the best candidate is Gloucester," Reville wrote in the e-mail, sent Feb. 5 at 11:54 p.m.
Then he asked: "Can you see your way clear to supporting it?"
The other two charter applications, for schools in Waltham and Worcester, were not recommended by Chester and never voted on by the state's Board of Education.
The Waltham application was for an alternative high school serving 220 "at-risk" students in that city. The Worcester application was for a regional middle and high school charter that would serve 585 students in that city, Oxford and Leicester.
In supporting Gloucester over the Waltham and Worcester applications, Reville appears to have considered it the best out of a list of bad choices.
"Frankly, I'd rather fight for the kids in the Waltham situation, but it sounds like you can't find a solid basis for standing behind that one," wrote Reville, who referred to the state education officials' dilemma as a "no-win situation."
"I'm not inclined to push Worcester, so that leaves Gloucester."
When he was appointed by Patrick last year, Reville had two children in the Worcester public schools.
In the 100 or so pages of communications between the governor's office and Department of Elementary and Secondary Education turned over in response to the Times' records request, there was no e-mail response from Chester.
Jonathan Considine, a spokesman for Chester and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said Chester did not send a response to the e-mail.
"Lots of people presented opinions, some in support and some in opposition, on the Gloucester Community Arts Charter School's proposal, and the commissioner took stock of all of them," Considine said. "At the end of the day, Commissioner Chester made his decision based on the merits of the application."
A spokesman for Reville asked about the e-mail offered a statement saying the secretary's views on the Gloucester charter "are positive, and well known."
"Part of his responsibility as secretary is to maintain regular contact with the Commissioners of Education on any and all matters of educational importance," the statement said. "In these conversations, he always endeavors to convey his perspective while respecting the independence of the commissioners' views and actions."
Presented with a copy of the e-mail yesterday, local officials who have vigorously fought the Gloucester charter for more than a year pounced on it as proof that the charter approval process — billed as impartial and criteria-based — was in fact a staged exercise, the outcome of which was determined by political expediency.
"The e-mail appears to confirm what many of us have believed all along: The Board of Education's deliberations on the Gloucester Community Arts Charter school proposal were a politically orchestrated charade," said Superintendent Christopher Farmer, who has spearheaded the local opposition.
"The whole episode shatters the credibility of the Secretary of Education and the commissioner, while at the same time approving the establishment of a charter school in Gloucester which does not meet the established criteria for approval," Farmer said. "Gloucester is to be collateral damage in the cause of a wider political agenda,"
State Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante, who worked to bring a state oversight committee to Gloucester to hear testimony on the charter issue, called it disappointing.
"This is further evidence that the decision was based on moving forward a charter school agenda rather than a true evaluation of an application," Ferrante said. "It disappoints me that moving forward with the agenda was more important than the education of our district's children."
A controversial subject nationally, charter schools have proved particularly contentious in Massachusetts, where teachers unions, traditional charter opponents, wield heavy clout and the process for funding the independent public schools draws directly from host districts.
Patrick's course on charter schools has been difficult to chart since he began his campaign for governor in 2005.
During that race, he was criticized by opponents for failing to issue strong enough support for charters, including lifting the state cap on charter spending per district.
After taking office under a landslide election victory and a platform of "change," Patrick proposed creating Readiness Schools, a series of public schools with greater independence modeled on charter schools.
State charter backers were initially concerned that Readiness Schools, which have yet to be established, would end up being a substitute for charters.
But this year, Patrick has released two proposals that would raise the number of charter schools allowed in the state. The latest proposal, even more charter friendly than the first, was aired at a Statehouse hearing of the Joint Committee on Education this week.
Into the already-pitched battle over charter schools last summer came the debate over the Gloucester charter proposal, which outside observers have called one of the most contentious they have ever seen.
Nearly every elected official in Gloucester opposed the charter school, primarily because it is expected to eventually cost the school district an estimated $2.4 million annually in diverted state school aid.
Almost immediately after the school was approved Feb. 24 by the state Board of Education — on a 6-5 vote with Reville's affirmative ballot cast in absentia — the decision was met with accusations of irregularities and procedural flaws.
In June, Ferrante was able to get the Legislature's Joint Committee on Education to come to Gloucester for an oversight hearing on the charter approval process, in which Chester and Board of Education Chairwoman Maura Banta defended the process.
Then last month, Patrick surprised everyone when he stepped in and called for the Board of Education to nullify its vote and start over. At the same time, he ordered Reville to come to Gloucester and begin talks with stakeholders on both sides of the issue to try to try to broker a compromise.
Patrick's intervention came a little more than a week after he met with two Gloucester charter opponents, Peter Dolan and Elizabeth Neumeier, who had headed up the local arm of his 2006 gubernatorial campaign.
Reville met with city officials twice last month, and once this month with representatives of the charter school board.
"We know when the secretary was meeting with us, he was going to be meeting with them and we are still waiting to here how that went," School Committee Chairman Greg Verga said yesterday.
Patrick created the Executive Office of Education in his government reorganization plan last year and named Reville secretary of education. The secretary reports directly to the governor and is responsible for coordinating the state's education bureaucracy.
Chester, appointed last January, three months before Reville, serves the state Board of Education, which nominates him to the Secretary of Education for approval.
The Gloucester Community Arts Charter School is scheduled to open next fall and it is unclear whether any new information about the approval process will have any bearing on what form it takes when it does open.
As Gloucester officials steam over the way the Community Arts Charter School application was handled, the debate over charters at the state level continues, with the Massachusetts Teachers Association releasing a study this week warning of high drop-out rates at charter schools and charter backers rallying at the Education Committee hearing.
On Tuesday. the state Board of Education is scheduled to discuss at its regular meeting in Malden a series of changes to the charter regulations proposed by Chester in response to the findings of the oversight committee's look at the Gloucester charter.
In the end, the closing lines of Reville's message to Chester may frustrate local officials the most.
"Thanks for not seeing this as an independence issue," Reville wrote closing his e-mail to Chester. "It really is a matter of positioning ourselves so that we can be viable to implement the rest of our agenda. It's a tough but I think necessary pill to swallow."
Patrick Anderson can be reached at email@example.com
The full text of the e-mail message from state Education Secretary Paul Reville to state Education Commissioner Mitchell D. Chester regarding the Gloucester charter school application, as obtained by the Times.
From: Reville, Paul
Sent: Thursday, February 5, 2009, 11:54 p.m.
To: Chester, Mitchell D. (DOE)
Hope all's well and warm in AZ. I appreciated our talk today and your openness and flexibility. This situation presents one of those painful dilemmas. In addition to being a no-win situation, it forces us into a political cul de sac where we could be permanently trapped. Our reality is that we have to show some sympathy in this group of charters or we'll get permanently labeled as hostile and they will cripple us with a number of key moderate allies like the Globe and the Boston Foundation. Frankly, I'd rather fight for the kids in the Waltham situation, but it sounds like you can't find a solid basis for standing behind that one. I'm not inclined to push Worcester, so that leaves Gloucester. My inclination is to think that you, I and the Governor all need to send at least one positive signal in this batch, and I gather that you think the best candidate is Gloucester. Can you see your way clear to supporting it? Would you want to do the financial trigger even in light of likely stimulus aid?
Thanks for not seeing this as an independence issue. It really is a matter of positioning ourselves so that we can be viable to implement the rest of our agenda. It's a tough but I think necessary pill to swallow. Let's discuss some more tomorrow.