New Bedford's mayor and the Alma del Mar charter school recently agreed to a unique limited expansion of the school. It turns out the City had no choice.

On Saturday evening, a source called me to tell me there is more to the "agreement" between the City and the charter school.

On January 14, 2019, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education announced an agreement had been reached between Mayor Jon Mitchell, Alma del Mar leader Will Gardner, and DESE Commissioner Jeffrey C. Riley to expand the number of New Bedford children served by the charter school. The press release had lots of information about the agreement, but it left out something crucial.

It left out the details of the gun to the head of the City budget, and therefore the employees of the Whaling City.

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At the next meeting of the state's Board of Elementary and Secondary Education on January 22, Commissioner Riley is proposing two votes regarding the expansion of Alma del Mar. The first vote is to approve the celebrated agreement that expands the charter school by 450 students and gives the charter school a City building, the Horatio A. Kempton Elementary School on Shawmut Avenue, for free. The second vote isn't as celebrated and didn't make it into the press release.

The second vote on Tuesday will allow Alma del Mar to instead increase to 594 seats if Commissioner Riley determines the city is not acting in good faith to aid the charter school to expand by the current agreement of 450 seats.

The state has weaponized the expansion process.

Mayor Mitchell and City Councilor Hugh Dunn have warned that adding the maximum number of charter seats to Alma del Mar would result in financial devastation to the City's finances. Tax increases and layoffs of police, fire, and teachers will be the result if the state grants the full expansion to the charter school. The vote on Tuesday will place the financial future of the City of New Bedford in the hands of Commissioner Riley.

One potential problem will be the transfer of the City building to the charter school for free. That giveaway will require positive votes by the City Council and the School Committee. Should either body vote against giving the City building to the charter school, it could trigger the Commissioner to scrap the compromise deal and grant all of the seats to Gardner's operation.

Can the charter school sell the school to private investors and then lease it back from the investors on a long-term basis? What happens if the charter school fails? Does the building revert back to the City? These are some of the questions that come to mind.

There are other questions the City Council and the School Committee might want to ask, but they also can't afford to be perceived as slowing or stalling the process in the eyes of Commissioner Riley.

Chris McCarthy is the host of The Chris McCarthy Show on 1420 WBSM New Bedford. He can be heard weekdays from 10 a.m. to noon. Contact him at and follow him on Twitter @Chris_topher_Mc. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. 

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