, Gloucester, MA

October 1, 2012

Editorial: Blackman's drastic cut shows need for charter reforms

Gloucester Daily Times

---- — The drastic step by Gloucester Community Arts Charter School Executive Director Tony Blackman to cut his own job to save the school some $80,000 toward a $550,000 budget deficit indeed shows his commitment to the school, which never could have opened without his efforts and those of several parents in the late summer and fall of 2010.

Yet his perceived need to take that step also spotlights for the state and the local charter’s Board of Trustees the flaws in funding these programs based solely on a per-pupil, early-enrollment projection basis — a per-pupil count that, in this case, has been set up to fail in each of the school’s three years.

So as the board, GCAS Education Director Beth Del Forge, and, yes, the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education ease into a transition with Blackman leaving Oct. 20, it’s important that all parties take a fresh look at how this situation has evolved, with this year’s deficit outstripping funding gaps that have also forced mid-year cuts in the school’s staffing in the past as well. For the goal, as Blackman noted himself, must be for this school — fresh off a mixed bag of MCAS scores, but some showing significant improvements — to move forward and continue providing school parents and their children this important educational option.

It’s not difficult to tell what prompted Blackman’s choice — and the hesitant acceptance of it by the trustees, who, Chairman James Caviston noted, had been poised to offer Blackman a multi-year deal with a pay hike, then shifted its negotiating sessions toward a “separation” agreement that still needs final approval: In each of its three years, the charter school has drawn expressions of interest from students and families on one level, then found far fewer of them actually firm up registering and attending.

Blackman and other charter school officials say they’ve played by the rules, submitting the numbers who have initially signed on as being part of their recognized “pre-enrollment.” That’s what gets budgeted by the state, and Blackman and other school officials have hired the school’s staff based on that budgeting. But in each of the three years, enrollment has come up significantly short — this time, with 130 students showing up compared to a pre-enrollment 212.

So while Blackman rightfully recognized the school would not approach that figure, and hired fewer staffers, the pending budget cut would once again forced mid-year changes if Blackman had not cut his own post. Cuts and other staff departures in the middle of the school year have not only hurt the students in the school at the time. They’ve also – rightly or wrongly — hurt the perception of the school’s stability and credibility, playing right into the hands of GCAS’ many critics who still see it as a threat to the city’s public school system and frankly would love to see it closed.

That should not be allowed to happen.

On one hand, per-pupil budgeting can seemingly be an effective means of funding education. But statewide per-pupil funding budgeting — which is how Massachusetts’ charter system functions — can only work effectively if the enrollment counts are legitimate. And whether that means stepping up a student’s or family’s commitment, or changing the enrollment budgeting time frame, it’s clear this system needs reform.

Look, Blackman and Gloucester’s charter school have weathered one crisis after another since the controversial school first fought through a city permit stonewall, survived even the state ed commissioner’s belated, 11th-hour questions as to its “viability,” and opened its doors now three Septembers ago. And while the enrollment numbers have fallen short of expectations — especially this year, when, amid more political storm clouds, the school added a kindergarten and first grade to complete its K-to-Grade 8 profile — the vast majority of families who are part of the school swear by the positive responses it’s brought their children.

Blackman has more than done his part to help the school move forward. It’s time the state Education Department and the school’s own Board of Trustees recognize the flaws — and the urgent need for reforms.