GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

December 10, 2012

Death knell for charter?

State education chief, citing problems, calls for revocation

By Marjorie Nesin and Richard Gaines, Staff Writers
Gloucester Daily Times

---- — Mitchell D. Chester, the state commissioner of education, has recommended that the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education revoke the charter of the Gloucester Community Arts Charter School and close the school at the end of the spring term in June.

The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education meets next Tuesday with Chester’s recommendation on the agenda. Charter school officials will present their rebuttal to Chester’s recommendation before the board votes.

Board spokesman J.C. Considine said he expects the board to follow Chester’s recommendation, but the charter board can appeal, which could draw out the decision for months.

The demise of the experiment after three years would send about 100 of the 130 students at the charter school back into the Gloucester School District’s one middle and five elementary schools. Closure of Gloucester Community Arts would also give the city back Chapter 70 funding that the charter school claimed; the money had been a sore point with public school advocates concentrated in the School Committee and allied with state Sen. Bruce Tarr and state Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante.

The process of revoking the school’s charter was triggered with a nine-page, single-spaced memo that described a suite of failings adding up, in Mitchell’s judgment, to a school that “is no longer a viable organization.”

School Committee Chairman Jonathan Pope said the public schools would have no trouble integrating the charter students.

“My reaction is that this has been a terrible waste of time and money,” Pope said. “I feel badly for the parents and children, and at the same time, the (Gloucester) School Department will deal with the students coming back and provide a good education.”

The Gloucester Community Arts Charter School was born in controversy: Chester was lobbied by Gov. Deval Patrick’s education secretary — against his own better judgment and by the against the grain of the Department of Education charter staff — to recommend granting the charter to Gloucester advocates and organizers, as the best of three uninspiring options, and the board went along with Chester back in 2009. Opponents sued the state and battle lines formed throughout the city.

“In his request to Chester, acquired by the Times through the state’s public records law, Education Secretary Paul Reville warned that rejecting all three charters would get the Patrick administration ‘permanently labeled as hostile’ to charter schools, something that would ‘cripple us with a number of key, moderate allies like the (Boston) Globe and Boston Foundation,’ The Times wrote in 2009.

The Times obtained Reville’s email to Chester under the state’s Public Information Records Law.

“There are lessons to be learned by everyone in the community from this ordeal,” said Mayor Carolyn Kirk, who sought a middle ground in the municipal schism. “After the new year, as we see the path in its finality, we should make a point of having a holistic dialog about education in the city of Gloucester.”

“The important thing now is for the district to step up and ensure that these returning students are given the resources necessary to get up to speed in their district school,” said Jason Grow, who joined the lawsuit against the state and the charter school. “ It would be a good use of some of the city’s free cash to ensure that there is a smooth transition. Moving forward, I hope that our efforts will all be focused on helping improve the educational opportunities of all the children in the district. “

In his Friday memo, Chester laid out the school’s deficiencies and suggested the board revoke the charter for “among other reasons ‘fraud or gross mismanagement on the part of charter school administrators or board of trustees ...’ and ‘failure to comply substantially with the terms of the charter’.”

The appeals process could take few months: A hearing officer would preside over a fact-finding and issue a recommendation before the board takes a climactic vote, leaving the future of the school unresolved until early spring.

“The goal there is obviously to be as expeditious as possible,” Considine said. “It can take a toll on parties on both sides.”

Still, the charter school’s Board of Trustees would need to fight past a negative site review to survive. The October site review found numerous failings at the school, which serves approximately 130 kindergartners through eighth-graders. The school also was burdened with a poor three-year review from the state in October.

“School administrators at the (school) have not demonstrated an ability to ensure an orderly environment or execute a plan to remedy poor academic performance,” Chester wrote.

“For the past three years, the school’s high rates of student attrition, low enrollment and staff turnover indicate an overall lack of organizational and financial viability. Additionally,” the commissioner wrote, “since opening its doors on Sept. 23, 2010, (Gloucester Community Arts Charter School) has failed to adhere to the terms of its charter by providing the academic program as promised in the school’s mission and vision.”

The recommendation against the school came about after a tumultuous series of events. Then Executive Director Tony Blackman resigned from his position this year, reportedly in order to save money for the school, but remained on the Board of Trustees. A three-year site review pointed out faults at the school, from low MCAS math scores to heavy turnover in staff to behavioral issues among students.

Though charter schools are generally granted a five-year start-up period, the possibility of the state board revoking the school’s charter after its third year became very real at a Nov. 27 meeting, when Chester told the state and charter boards that “revocation (of the school’s charter) is very clearly in (the) realm of possibilities.”

Then, at the same meeting, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, during discussion of the charter school, learned of a $75,000 loan the school got from a private donor with a payoff of $2,500, which Chester classified as “a pretty unusual transaction.” The loaner, Diana Lam, head of School at Conservatory Lab Charter School in Boston, went on to review the school a year and a half later, as part of the three-year site plan review team.

An audit of the school by the state auditor, which began before the Nov. 27 meeting, will examine the loan, but had yet to be completed as of last Friday, according to Chester’s letter.

Charter board members had met with state Education Department staff last Thursday, reportedly to discuss the charter’s place as an agenda item at the Dec. 18 meeting. At a meeting last Wednesday night, the Gloucester Community Arts trustees discussed re-chartering as a Horace Mann charter school — a state-funded innovative school that would be part of the public school district, but would still run rather independently — but decided to hold off on sharing the re-chartering idea with the state board.

The application process to become a chartered Horace Mann school runs between July and February, meaning a Horace Mann school would be unable to open its doors until 2014.

Charter school trustees, including Blackman, board chairman James Caviston, and four others did not return calls for comment Monday.

Marjorie Nesin and Richard Gaines may be reached at 978-283-7000, or rgaines@gloucerstertimes.com and mnesin@gloucestertimes.com.