GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

December 12, 2008

State hears 'No charter' at school hearing

By Patrick Anderson

The extended Gloucester public schools community mobilized yesterday in support of a system widely viewed as under assault from a group of parents and educators proposing a new arts-focused charter school.

Offering testimony at times emotional and almost always forceful, Gloucester teachers, administrators, parents and one student outnumbered those supporting the proposal in a hearing before state education officials at Fuller School.

"The charter school proposes separate but equal education," said Jeanine Harris of Concord Street, invoking the civil rights movement to condemn the charter. "It will be a privileged education for a few."

"I can't say I know what it is like to be frustrated with my school, because I haven't been," Gloucester High School senior Sarah Johnson said. "I demand that any financial allocation go to schools already struggling with funding."

Although fewer in number, charter school supporters offered a vision of innovation sparked by competition.

"I have seen that there is a lot of innovation in the Gloucester schools system, but I would like to give my support to the charter school because I want it to be better," parent Tim Sauder said. "I argue that the charter will force both to be better. On a national scale, charter schools have been innovators."

Founding group member Kate Ruff was more critical.

"Gloucester public schools have had growing budgets, declining enrollment and declining MCAS," Ruff said. "The district has the money to do everything we propose."

Gloucester Community Arts Charter School would be a public school for 240 kindergartners through middle-schoolers when fully enrolled. The district would not controlled it and teachers would not be in the local union.

The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education will decide whether to award a charter in February. It is unclear exactly how much weight the state places on local perspective in making its decision.

The charter proposal has struck fear into city and school officials, as well as many parents, because it is funded using state school aid dollars diverted from existing public schools.

Estimates have placed the amount diverted from city schools after full enrollment and start-up reimbursements at $2.4 million annually.

The School Department and School Committee have warned that the charter would mean larger class sizes and the closing of at least one school due to the loss of money.

Among local elected officials, the proposal has been almost uniformly condemned because of its potential financial impact.

Last night state Sen. Bruce Tarr added his name to those calling for a state moratorium on all charter schools "until we can find a better solution" to the school funding system.

Ward 4 Councilor Jackie Hardy, one of the proposal's few backers on City Council, last night said she changed her mind because of potential budget issues the city faces as a result of the national recession.

"A month ago I wrote a letter in support of the (charter school). I still think it would be a good thing, but I can no longer support that position," Hardy said. "I have been persuaded that now is not the time."

Ward 5 Councilor Philip Devlin last night came out as the only councilor to officially support the charter school.

Among parents, the debate often came down to competing visions of what the charter will do to the exisiting schools: drive them to succeed through competition or destroy them by starving them of resources.

"Where are we going to be in 10 years," charter founding group member Kathy Bertagne said. "The charter school is not a private school, it is open to all. It will make a more comprehensive school district."

"I approached the charter school with interest, but the application prevented a distorted view," Roger Garber said. "For them, our financial struggles are a distant rumor."

Patrick Anderson can be reached at panderson@gloucestertimes.com.