GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

November 27, 2012

Ed chief questions $75K loan

By Marjorie Nesin
Staff Writer

---- — The state’s elementary and secondary education board had no extensive knowledge of the $75,000 loan given to the Gloucester Community Arts Charter School by another charter school’s head of school, just 14 months before she participated in a site review of the school.

But the state’s education commissioner made calls Tuesday to an auditor asking that the loan be included as part of a current audit of the school’s finances after hearing about the “unusual transaction” at a Department of Education Special Meeting Tuesday.

Mitchell D. Chester, the state’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education, pointed at the loan as questionable at Tuesday’s special meeting, at which the state board was scheduled to discuss the Gloucester school’s site review.

”Certainly it appears to be a pretty unusual transaction,” Chester said.

The loan also spurred new questions about the quality of the already scalding site review and raised further doubts about the school’s functionality.

Diane Lam, head of school at Conservatory Lab Charter School in Boston, personally loaned the $75,000 for a three week period — and a $2,500 loan fee — to the Gloucester charter school in September 2011, securing the loan with $590,000 of state money that was due the school by Sept. 30. Lam said she signed onto the loan after the “financial person” serving both her school and the Gloucester charter told Lam the Gloucester school needed help. Lam then served last month on a site review team that assessed the Gloucester’s school’s progress.

Chester said the state board had not known about the connection at the time of the site visit. Chester also said that those speaking against the state board’s allowing Lam to review the school were “absolutely fair.”

“Had we known about it, we certainly would not have included the individual on the review team,” Chester said. But, he said, “I hesitate to conclude that as a result of this individual being on this site review that the school got a good review, because that’s hardly the case.”

Officials on the charter school’s board of trustees Tuesday maintained their stance that since the woman had loaned money to the school over a year prior to reviewing it, and since she “simply observed” the school as part of the review team, the review results were without bias.

Ira Yavner, a trustee, in an interview reiterated the charter school board’s decision to leave financial decisions up to then-Executive Director of the school, Tony Blackman. A financial agreement, like the loan “does not have to be done with any approval from the board,” Yavner said.

“Were we aware of it? Of course, but we didn’t have to vote on it,” he said.

The loan — reported in Tuesday morning’s Times — surfaced at Tuesday’s meeting when state Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante, D-Gloucester, cited it during public comment, when she called on the state board to take steps toward closing down the Gloucester charter school.

”Some stuff occurs that shouldn’t be occurring,” Ferrante said, “because you have this entity that’s like a square. For three years we’ve been trying to shove a square into a circle hole, and as we do the edges fall off. They make these decisions that are inappropriate because they keep trying to force a square into a circle and at some point we need to realize that the square just isn’t going to fit into that circle.

”It just can’t be. I want so much more for the students in my district,” Ferrante said.

Peter Dolan, a Gloucester Public Schools parent and lead plaintiff in a court case against Chester for his granting of the charter, gave the state board a firm slap on the wrist during his own testimony for not asking basic questions of Lam’s potential connections with the Gloucester school before assigning her to the team. Of the eight reviewers, all came from the Department of Education except Lam and an official from another charter school.

”You would think that with only two outside members on the evaluation panel, someone in the department might even take a minute to ask Diana Lam if she had any relationships, financial or otherwise, with the Gloucester charter school before they made her one of the evaluators,” Dolan said.

Marjorie Nesin can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3451, or at mnesin@gloucestertimes.com.