I have long been an advocate for charter schools, but I understand the argument made by local officials who say charter schools divert funds intended for public school funding.

The Mitchell Administration and state education officials have apparently reached a tentative understanding that could see the Alma del Mar Charter School expand, albeit somewhat less enthusiastically than it had hoped.

Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley is proposing that the school add 450 new seats, a fraction of the 1,200 seats school officials had applied for and that the expansion is limited to one, not two, new campuses. The plan would have the Alma del Mar draw from a pool of neighborhood kids rather than a city-wide lottery. That provides access to only a select number of families although families citywide would foot the cost.

The plan would utilize the former Kempton School. Alma del Mar would pay to bring the building up to code.

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The Mitchell Administration has long opposed charter school expansion in New Bedford because of the drain on the budget for traditional public schools yet Mitchell says this agreement "contemplates a fairer way to do charter schools – fairer to cities, fairer to taxpayers, and fairer to students in district schools. It will level the playing field by requiring the new charter school to accept all students in its neighborhood."

But how does this change the equation? It would still be a draw down on the state's allocation for New Bedford's public school system.

The plan would also allow New Bedford to apply for targeted assistance grants from the state to support the new model, and the charter school would also pursue charter expansion grants. But that would make the New Bedford system even more reliant on the state and would be on the hook for the new costs entirely when the grant money dries up. One-time money should never be used to fund ongoing expenses.

The arrangement is opposed by state and local teacher unions who are concerned it would result in a loss of funds for traditional public schools.

"We wish that state education officials would put half as much energy into supporting and funding our district public schools as they put into finding new ways to force communities to accept —and pay for – privately run charter schools," Massachusetts Teachers Association President Merrie Najimy said.

The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education is scheduled to discuss and vote on Riley's recommendation at their Jan. 22 meeting. It must also be approved by the New Bedford School Committee, the City Council and the Massachusetts Legislature.

This sounds like a bad deal for New Bedford. This proposal clearly needs further consideration, not to mention public input.

Barry Richard is the host of The Barry Richard Show on 1420 WBSM New Bedford. He can be heard weekdays from noon to 3 p.m. Contact him at barry@wbsm.com and follow him on Twitter @BarryJRichard58. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. 

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