NEW BEDFORD — Parents, teachers, and City officials made impassioned pleas to a packed meeting room at Keith Middle School in New Bedford Tuesday night as they voiced their opposition to any expansion of charter schools in the city.

The panel discussion featuring concerned officials and faculty members was hosted by the New Bedford Coalition to Save Our Schools.

School Committee member Josh Amaral argues that a decline in enrollment in traditional public schools will eventually lead to significantly less funding, even though the school system has the same footprint to maintain.

"We still need to attempt to keep nearly thirty buildings open across the district," said Amaral. "We need to keep an administration that's stocked. We need to fund district-wide programs and try to find ways to do that even though our economies to scale are reduced."

Alma del Mar Charter School has a plan under review by the state that would allow them to operate two new schools with a combined student enrollment of nearly 1,200. Opponents argue the plan would cost the city about $15 million, as funding follows the student and reimbursement formulas are inadequate.

Massachusetts provides reimbursement to school districts when students enroll in public charter schools, transferring from traditional public schools. The formula calls for 100% reimbursement of the child's tuition to the school district for the first year following the transfer, with 25% reimbursement to the district for the next five years.

Ward Three City Councilor Hugh Dunn says City is already funding existing charter schools at a rate of $15 million a year, and if the plan for Alma del Mar's expansion is approved the City would be paying twice as much.

"$30 million is a lot of money. The City's general fund budget is $338 million," said Dunn. "So we're climbing toward 10% of the City's entire budget for charter schools. It's just not sustainable."

Another panelist, Dr. Kathleen Mackenzie, a school adjustment counselor and member of the New Bedford Educators Association, equates the conundrum to a social justice issue. While all students are invited to apply for charter schools, and the lottery is chosen at random, the school can return students to traditional public education for a multitude of reasons, including behavioral problems and demanding special needs requirements.

"So, not only is this a form of segregation that excludes some of our neediest students, it also compounds the negative impact on our budget by having us educate the highest needs students while limiting the resources needed to do so," said Dr. Mackenzie.

The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is expected to rule on the proposal from Alma del Mar within the coming months.

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