The departure of popular Gloucester Community Arts Charter School principal Jody Ziebarth under disputed circumstances some 10 days ago has now raised a series of questions and red flags regarding the stability of the school.
And all of this comes at the worst possible time, with guest speaker and Mayor Carolyn Kirk helping the school mark its first-ever eighth-grade graduation Friday night, and with the independent public school actively recruiting new students and families for the fall, when it will add a first grade and kindergarten to compete its K-8 profile.
But the loss of Ziebarth and the manner in which her departure and other changes at the school this year have been handled suggest that all is far from well at 1 Blackburn Drive.
So the state Department of Education, which granted the charter in February 2009, and is due to review its progress and status again in the fall, would do well to step in now and carry out an investigation by meeting with Executive Director Tony Blackman, the school's teachers and staff, the Board of Trustees — which continues to show little or no accountability to parents or the public — and perhaps most importantly, the school's parents, some of whom are now coming forward with concerns of their own about GCAS' operations and accountability.
The departure of Ziebarth — whose "head of school" position parallels the job of a principal actually dealing with teachers and running the school under Blackman, who is essentially its superintendent — apparently became certain in late April, when she says Blackman and Trustees' Chairman James Caviston told her she wouldn't have a job at the charter school next year.
Yet there is no mention of any such change listed in the trustees' May minutes. And while Blackman said Ziebarth's exit was by "mutual" agreement over yet another switch to filling that position with a new curriculum director — the second back-and-forth change among those positions and titles in two years — Ziebarth conveyed to the Times there was nothing "mutual" about it.
While Blackman and state Department of Education spokesman J.C. Considine said as late as last Wednesday that Ziebarth would stay on through the end of the year, it seemed obvious to parents and others who saw Ziebarth's packed-up office as early as Monday that she was out the door.
And let's not forget that her departure is once again not the only one this academic year at the school. With the GCAS already under orders from the state to step up its special education program — the school's special ed director, Les Kiehn, also left the school in February.
Some of this is no doubt due to the school's budget shortfalls. Unlike traditional public schools — and while Gloucester's city school budget continues to rise despite declining enrollments — the charter school's budget allocated by the state is based entirely on a per-pupil figure. And, in each of its first two years, the school's enrollment has come up short of projections, bringing a mid-year budget cut.
Yet, this isn't all about money. It's more about management and accountability.
The lack of transparency on the part of the school and its board of trustees suggest that, despite ordered to clean up its act when it comes to open meeting laws and other state mandates, Gloucester Community Arts officials still haven't gotten the message. And in the case of Ziebarth's exit, they haven't kept their school parents — a big part of this and any charter school community - in the loop, either.
There is a clearly a lot of good going on at this school. And it's good that Gloucester parents have this type of independent alternative for their children.
But the school and the state Department of Education owe the school's parents and all city residents some hard answers regarding how Ziebarth's exit and other changes at the school this year were carried out, and where this school really stands financially and otherwise heading into its third year.
For there are now real questions as to whether this school is the real educational answer for the students and families it serves.