GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

November 27, 2012

Update: Charter decision due in December; ‘revocation’ on the table

By Times Staff
Gloucester Daily Times

---- — LAWRENCE — State Education Commissioner Mitchell D. Chester said today that the Gloucester Community Arts Charter School will likely carry through the rest of the current school year.

But a decision regarding the school’s long-term future will be forthcoming in December, he added, reiterating he has deep concerns regarding the school’s ”viability,” and suggesting his recommendation could include “revocation” of its charter.

Chester’s comments came during a meeting of the state’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, and came on the heels of a damning site visit report from a Department of Education team that visited the Gloucester charter school last month.

“It’s not just the report on conditions that is alarming me,” Chester said. “they are struggling in virtually all aspects. At this point in their development level, they are at a place in their third year that we might expect to see in a first-year school.

“Revocation,” he said, “is very clearly in my realm of possibilities for my recommendation.”

The state’s BESE is next slated to meet Dec. 18, though it was not certain the Gloucester decision will be made at that session.

Chester’s comments also came after state Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante this morning called upon the state’s elementary and secondary ed board to take steps toward closing down Gloucester’e charter school, which opened in September 2010 after founders were granted a charter in February 2009. School officials, said they believe they can still move the school and its programs forward.

Ferrante, addressing the board during the public comment period of this morning’s special and extended board meeting, cited word of the $75,000 loan extended to the charter without any signoff from the school’s Board of Trustees as one more problem showing the flawed operation of the school, and the financial impact it is having on the Gloucester Public School District.

As the Times reported today, then-charter school Executive Director Tony Blackman accepted a $75,000, three-week loan extended personally in September 2011 by Diana Lam, who is head of school at the Conservatory Lab Charter School in Boston. In exchange, Lam netted a $2,500 loan fee. GCACS trustees’ chairman James Caviston told the Times that, while the board had no say or ever signed off on the loan, the trustees had given Blackman the authority to carry out such an action. But the loan has spurred questions about the loan’s legality, and about Lam’s profitting from it, and charter critics have also cited a conflict of interest considering that Lam was also part of a site visit group that reported last month on programs and conditions at the Gloucester school.

“Generally we look at a five-year period to give a charter school an opportunity to come into its fruition and to come into its being,” Ferrante said. “However ... I don’t know the remainder of the balance of the five years is realistic for this charter school to overcome its challenges. I’m not even sure that an additional five years would allow the board of this charter school the opportunity to fulfill its obligations. I want so much more for the students in my district.”

Officials with the school told the board they’re confident the GCACS can still succeed.

“We have made plans to ensure the school’s viability and success (since the October site review),” said GCACS Board of Trustees Chairman James Caviston.

Beth DelForge, the school’s director of education who has taken the reins from Blackman after he cut his own executive director’s job this fall amid a renewed budget crisis, said she and the staff are focused on firming up the curriculum and boosting MCAS scores.

“To get there, we have a lot to do, though we have begun,” she said.,

Ira J. Yavner, a member of the charter school’s Board of Trustees, said simply, “I just hope they give us a chance to continue.”

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