GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

December 6, 2012

Charter eyes 'Horace Mann' alternative

'Horace Mann' proposal faces major hurdles

By Marjorie Nesin
Staff Writer

---- — The Gloucester Community Arts School, facing a potential revocation of its charter in less than two weeks, is entertaining the idea of joining the Gloucester Public School District as a Horace Mann school — an arrangement that would allow the school to maintain relative independence yet receive funding as part of the public school district.

David Buchanan, a member of the charter school’s Board of Trustees and employee of the state’s Department of Education, presented his personal proposal at a board meeting Thursday night, including a timeline that would have led the school to become a Horace Mann facility by July 2013.

But, the charter immediately faces two issues. The state requires that both local school committee and local teachers’ union to endorse any Horace Mann schools. And the timeline Buchanan laid out fails to take into account the state’s application process, which, according to Department of Education spokesman J.C. Considine, runs July through February of each year.

“It wouldn’t happen because they’ve missed this year’s application cycle,” Considine said.

Considine, calling a Horace Mann school “a completely different charter” from a state charter school, said the current charter school’s trustees would need to apply for a new charter.

Though some opponents view Buchanan’s proposal to re-charter the school as a last ditch effort to hang onto the school, Buchanan classified it as an attempt to preserve “alternative educational opportunities.”

“I see it as an effort to try to mend the rift in the city, to try to reunite the city around a common goal, around trying to create better educational opportunities for all kids in the city,” Buchanan said in a telephone interview Thursday. “And I think we should all be working on that together.”

Buchanan said the timing was wrong when the Horace Mann idea was last discussed, with the charter school just being formed at the time. The GCACS was granted its charter in February 2009, but did not open until September 2010, with activists at least talking of a potential Horace Mann alternative as a potential compromise in the interim. A Horace Mann School functions under a board independent from the school committee, and shares a single pool of funding with other schools in the district, in addition to receiving private grants. Teachers, however, work within the confines of local union contracts.

“This has been an idea that was discussed some years ago in the early years of the charter,” Buchanan said Thursday. “It’s something that I’ve never entirely put away. I’ve always had it in the back of my mind.”

The charter board had met Wednesday night in part to discuss upcoming meetings with the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. A few board members — not including Buchanan, who works for the state ed department — met with state officials Thursday, and the officials invited the charter’s board to make a presentation at the state board’s next meeting on Dec. 18.

At the board’s last meeting in November, the state Commissioner of Education Mitchell D. Chester called charter revocation “very clearly in (the) realm of possibilities” for his formal recommendation at the Dec. 18 meeting.

Though the charter’s board took no vote to endorse Buchanan’s proposal to re-charter as a Horace Mann school, many members spoke in favor of the idea and none spoke out against the draft proposal. Though Buchanan’s proposal refers to the “next meeting” of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education as Dec. 18, the board did not vote or decide to officially endorse and present the proposal or decide when they might do so.

Still, the re-chartering seemed to shine as a beacon of hope over energized board members Wednesday night, including Tony Blackman, former executive director of the charter school.

“If you move towards a revocation, however that goes, it will actually permanently solidify in the history of the city and all those who participated, the absolute failure to put kids first,” Blackman said. “What I really like about (this proposal) is it’s a proposal that’s about kids and not just the survival of this school but the survival of choice and change educationally in the city.”

The re-chartering draft proposal outlined steps school officials have taken to create a curriculum and ensure a more stable financial future at the school. The proposal, stating its purpose as to “form a partnership with the Gloucester Public Schools,” also included concessions the charter school could make, like a willingness to reconstitute their board.

Buchanan also offered a list of “proposed terms and conditions” in his draft proposal, including preserving “school leader and staff” until June 2013, asking “long-term protection for financial commitment of (the) current landlord,” and proposing independence for the charter board to hire staff and make program and budgetary decisions. But, one tentatively proposed term, to “terminate all litigation ... and any other activities to oppose the well-being of GCA” raised eyebrows.

Jason Grow, one of 14 plaintiffs in an active lawsuit against the state education board regarding their granting of the Gloucester school’s charter, called the Horace Mann potential proposal “a Hail Mary by a desperate board,” and said neither the state nor the charter school board has the power to retract his and his fellow city school parents’ lawsuit.

“I have no idea what that means,” Grow said, referring to the proposed condition. “It does further to suggest that you can’t even comment on the school.”

School Committee Chairman Jonathan Pope, meanwhile, said Thursday the committee has yet to formally discuss the Horace Mann school idea, and holds no official opinion. But Pope said that, in his mind, the idea doesn’t seem viable.

“An outside group can’t just decide to become a Horace Mann school. That’s something that has to be generated through the school district,” Pope said. “I can’t for a minute imagine us doing that, but I’m just speaking for myself ... If it’s the will of the school committee to talk about this, then we will.”

City Councilor Bruce Tobey, recognizing a divide between the public schools and the charter school, said people on all sides will just have “to suck it up and deal with it.”

“This could be a chance for something good to come of all of this,” Tobey said. “If folks focus and engage this thing seriously — and if the state helps, which I think among others they have a moral obligation to do — I think this is in the realm of doing.”

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