New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell says that since there isn't much the city can do to stop the expansion of charter schools, a unique new plan for expansion of the Alma del Mar school is a reasonable compromise.

The plan would see Alma del Mar gain 450 new seats for kindergarten through eighth grade by utilizing the vacant Kempton School in the city's West End. As part of the agreement, Alma del Mar would take the new students from the local neighborhood, as opposed to through a citywide lottery as is currently utilized.

"The reality is, we're going to get some (more charter school seats). What we tried to do was agree to a smaller school that would draw from the neighborhood rather than draw from all around the city," Mitchell said. "Why would you do that? For one, it's a lot cheaper for the City. Instead of $8 million, we've estimated it would cost about $4.1 million, and I think that is absorbable."

Mitchell said by creating a neighborhood district, it will be a fairer way to bring in students than through the lottery.

"You take the students as well as, frankly, taking whole classrooms," Mitchell said. "As opposed to school choice, where you're taking a kid from here, there and everywhere and busing them in."

Mitchell says above all else, it's that fairness that made this plan agreeable.

"It's really grated on public school teachers for a long time, all the claims that charter schools are educating the same kids (as public schools) because it's just not the case," Mitchell said. "There is a selection process. Not everybody signs up for the lottery. You get some kids whose parents just emigrated to the United States, with language and cultural barriers, and they just don't apply for lotteries. A lot of kids are counseled out. Under this model, they have to take the kids that live there."

Mitchell also said he thinks the original Alma del Mar campus should also follow suit and become a neighborhood school, as he says this new model is "fairer to the City, fairer to taxpayers and fairer to the kids who are in district schools."

"It puts the charter school, in this case, Alma, on a level playing field with neighborhood schools," he said. "They have to take the kids in the neighborhood, and their performance will be compared apples to apples with that of all the other district schools that have to do the same thing."

If the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education approves the plan at its January 22 meeting, Alma del Mar will have to replace the furnace at the Kempton School and make numerous other repairs to get the school ready to open by this August. Mitchell said Alma del Mar will be responsible for all maintenance on the building going forward, noting that it will cost them more to make the repairs than the building, which closed in 2016, is currently assessed at.

He also said he still prefers that the City fund zero percent of the costs associated with sending a student to a charter school, but pointed out that doesn't mean he's opposed to charter schools on the whole.

"My position on charters is not 'no charters under any circumstances,' but rather that charters can play a limited role as an incubator of new methods of teaching students," Mitchell said. "They can experiment and innovate when it comes to teaching methods, curriculum, extracurriculars. That was the original intent of charter schools, but it's become something much bigger over the last 20 years, to where it's seen as something that is displacing public schools. And there are many problems with that, the biggest being the financial one. We can't afford to do it like that."

Mitchell said he knows proponents of charter schools are "going ballistic" over this plan, but he feels it's a much better compromise than watching cities go broke trying to fund their own public schools while also being mandated to fund charter schools.

"This was better than other cities have done, honestly," Mitchell said. "I think other mayors around the state will say, you know what, if we're going to do a charter school in my city, I know I don't have much say over it, but I want to do it the way New Bedford did."