, Gloucester, MA

March 13, 2013

Editorial: Charter school's debt shows need for state reforms

Gloucester Daily Times

---- — The lineup of creditors and debts owed by the now-defunct Gloucester Community Arts Charter School speaks volumes about a wide variety of issues — including the dedication and commitment to the public, independent and innovative education project by the building’s landlord, Mick Lafata, who extended a $16,000 interest-free loan to help keep the school afloat beyond the estimated $1 million he’s now been shortchanged in rent, and Board of Trustees James Caviston, who loaned the school $12,000 to cover personnel costs in the school’s final days, after the state had pulled the financial plug.

But for all of the lessons buried behind the school’s $135,000 overall hole, perhaps the biggest question is how in the world the school’s finances became so tangled that it has – temporarily, at least — left its Foley Hoag LLP law firm high and dry for $45,734 and bailed on a $11,175 bill owed to a firm called Central Source, which — almost laughably — specializes in charter school management planning and consulting.

And the truth is, the schools debts once again point, more than anything else, to a dire lack of oversight on the part of the state’s Department of Education, and the need to reform the manner in which the state funds and then tends to its charter schools.

Simply put, the system of funding these schools strictly on a per-student basis — with few checks and balances confirming how any students are legitimately expected to enroll —does not work, and the GCACS, sadly, is now a poster child for that. In each of its three years, the school fell far short of its enrollment budget, and that meant mid-year cutbacks in state funding and thus in personnel, creating a perception of instability and thus a downward spiral. But it’s hard to believe the state could not have put an effective monitoring or verification system in place —or a safety net to cover a school’s shortfall when it occurs. And the fact that trustees had to bail out the school by covering its staffing costs for the final days in January is a disrgace that points more to the Department of Ed than to the school’s own trustees.

There are, in fact, a lot of lessons here. But perhaps the biggest is that — if these schools are to be part of Massachusetts’ public school menu, and they should be — they need to work under a funding formula that provides stability on a par with traditional public school districts. And that sure is not the case now.