A Superior Court Judge took "under advisement" the lawsuit filed last year by 15 Gloucester public school parents seeking an injunction that could shut down the Gloucester Community Arts Charter School.
They and the rest of Gloucester and the state, however, will have a final decision by the end of this month. After a Thursday hearing in the Lawrence Division of Essex County Superior Court, Judge Robert A. Cornetta — a new judge to the case — said he would release a ruling by Friday, July 29.
Among other charges, the plaintiffs, represented by Ian Roffman, allege that the state's Department of Education and its Board of Elementary and Secondary Education disregarded state law when granting the GCAS its charter in February 2009. The lawsuit also charges that, by steering funding to the charter school from the state's Chapter 70 aid to Gloucester, the state is wrongly denying funding to the city school system and harming the education of the parents' children in district schools.
Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Salinger — representing Mitchell Chester, the state Commissioner of Education, and the Board of Elementary and Secondary education — said the board did not disregard state law in deciding to recommend and approve Gloucester's new, independent public school.
He said the decision remained within the scope of the board's discretion, even though the Department of Education's Charter School office said the school did not meet the criteria for approval.
Meanwhile, Tad Heuer, attorney for the charter school, said the parents pressing the suit did not meet the criteria for showing harm worthy of an injunction.
He said the The city will receive partial, but not full, reimbursement for the $650,000 in Chapter 70 money directed to the charter for the new school year beginning in September. He added that the district received full reimbursement in the 2009-2010 school year.
The reimbursements — extending, he said, until 2018, and for most of the years, at 25 percent of the school's total Chapter 70 drain — provide the city with state education funding overall then it would get if it did not have a charter school.
The group of parents had initially gone before the court last August, when the charter school was struggling toward its tumultuous opening in September. But Judge Richard Welch, at that time, declined to issue an injunction blocking the opening of the school on grounds that the parents could not show immediate harm during the school's first year, when the city received full state reimbursement for the money used to operate the charter.
The plaintiffs who brought the case — all parents of children in the Gloucester School District — are former City Councilor Jason Grow, Peter Dolan, Erika Andrews, Diane Bevins, Hugo Burnham, Kevin Clancy, Jane Cunningham, Josephine Curtis, Martin Del Vecchio, Fredericke Grotjahn, Jonathan Hardy, Shelley Morgan, Denise San Paolo, Leora Ulrich and Maria Zervos.
Defendants include Chester kin his role as state ed commissioner, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education; and the Gloucester Community Arts Charter School itself.
The charter school is budgeted for taking in 165 students from the Gloucester School District for the coming school year, while the school expects up to 200 students overall while adding third- and eighth-grade programs to the school's first-year format of serving Grades 4-7.
The Gloucester Public School District, meanwhile, will be operating on a level-funded city budget of just over $33.6 million for fiscal 2012, but is blow level funding overall through some $650,000 being steered to the charter school, and the expiration, as scheduled, of one-time federal "stimulus" aid and other state aid.
Heuer said the district's students will, according to an affidavit from superintendent of schools Richard Safier, receive a quality education. He added that the district is above the state's minimum funding requirements. He added that, while the district had over 4,200 students in 2003, it's expecting just 3,200 for the coming school year.
"When you divide budget numbers by the number of students, your per pupil expenditure goes up," he said.
But, Roffman, arguing for the city school parents and plaintiffs, said the shift in Chapter 70 funding to the charter school will force the district make drastic changes.
"There's no doubt that in the next two to five years, a school will close," he said.
Gloucester operates with a neighborhood school system, and the charter school, said Roffman, pulls students in small amounts from classes across the city. But that's not enough, he said, to cut teaching positions or classes at individual schools.
Heuer said the parents also raised the lawsuit too late in the school year to provide time for the charter school parents to adjust. If Colletta approves the injunction, he said, the charter school parents would not be able to seek alternative education; most school-choice and private school application deadlines close in March.
Roffman, however, noted that the parents' suit does not allege any specific wrongdoing on the part of the charter school, but on the state for approving a charter school that the Department of Education's Charter School Office did not recommend.
Salinger, however, said the decision to approve was within the board's discretion. He added that the do not recommend was not a hard and fast ruling, but a prediction on the future of the school.
"It was a judgement call," he said, "a prediction for the future of the school,"
He added that the ruling was not an easy do-not-recommend either.
Heuer said that, if the injunction moves forward, it could jeopardize charter schools across the state, as it would allow any group of parents to allege financial harm to their school district as a reason to close charter schools.
But Roffman said Gloucester's charter school isn't every charter school.
"This is the only time the Board of elementary and Secondary Education voted on a charter that the Charter Office did not recommend," he said.
Steven Fletcher may be contacted at 1-978-283-7000 x3455, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevengdt.