Riley: New Bedford Charter School Will Add 594 Seats
STATE HOUSE, BOSTON — An innovative but controversial proposal to allow a New Bedford charter school to open a new campus is now officially off the table after hitting a series of stumbling blocks in the Legislature.
"We felt that this was a compromise that put the needs of New Bedford students and families first, and I commend the city’s municipal and school officials for their work," Education Commissioner Jeff Riley said in a statement late Friday afternoon. "Although we have delayed the decision in order to allow time for the home rule legislation to pass, I recognize now that the compromise will not move forward on a timeline that would allow New Bedford families to plan for September. Therefore, Alma del Mar Charter School will proceed with the approved traditional expansion."
Riley said the plan "sought to address municipal, school district, and charter school concerns in innovative and collaborative ways" and thanked everyone who was "positively involved" in advancing it.
The Alma Del Mar Charter School and New Bedford officials agreed to a deal under which the school would open a new 450-seat campus at a former city elementary school, drawing students from a new neighborhood enrollment zone. For that plan to be executed, lawmakers needed to pass a bill authorizing the property transfer and the creation of a neighborhood zone.
After first asking for passage of the bill by early May, Riley pushed back his deadline to the end of the month. Critics of the bill and of charter expansion used procedural moves to delay it in the House and Senate.
A motion the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education approved 9-2 in January allows Alma Del Mar to expand to 594 seats and enroll students by lottery if "the necessary legislation has not been enacted in sufficient time for planning and implementation." The 594-seat expansion represents half of what Alma Del Mar requested, and is what Riley said he would have granted under the traditional charter approval process.
Under the plan that was shelved on Friday, a memorandum of understanding agreed to by both New Bedford and Alma Del Mar would have made both parties eligible to apply for grants from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education "to create funding stability and predictability."
When the deal was first announced in January, New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell said it "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," he said.
Though the deal was green-lit by municipal officials in New Bedford, including with an 8-2 city council vote on the legislation to transfer the former Kempton School property and establish the neighborhood zone, the city's House delegation has been divided on it.
Reps. Christopher Markey and Paul Schmid, who each represent parts of the city, filed the home rule petition (HD 4174) in the House on May 2. Rep. Antonio Cabral of New Bedford has said he opposed the bill as written.
On May 23, Rep. James Hawkins of Attleboro blocked referral of the bill to the Education Committee, saying the full House should have the opportunity to weigh in on a charter school issue instead of the handful of lawmakers attending that day's informal session. Six days later, Cabral, with support from his fellow New Bedford-area Reps. Christopher Hendricks and William Straus, moved to send the bill to the committee for a hearing and review.
"Commissioner Riley has the authority to improve upon the 594 seat proposal by including the same financial incentives provided in the abandoned model, and addressing concerns related to the 3-year roll-out," Cabral said in a statement Friday. "My office has asked for a meeting with the Commissioner to discuss, in detail, the implementation of the plan as authorized under current law. I am looking forward to a productive and substantive discussion on how to best move forward and how to treat New Bedford children and their families, and its taxpayers, fairly."
Alma Del Mar will gradually ramp up to its full 594 seats beginning this fall, with this year's seats filled by students on the waiting list from the lottery for the existing campus, according to education officials. It will most likely open in the former Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception school building, which it had secured as a temporary site while working on the compromise plan. The 150 students enrolled under the neighborhood charter school plan will need to be reassigned back to New Bedford Public Schools.
The Massachusetts Teachers Association, parents and local education activists earlier this month filed a lawsuit in Bristol Superior Court arguing that the expansion deal violates the "anti-aid amendment" to the state Constitution, which restricts public money from going to entities like schools that are not publicly owned and operated.
Addressing the education board in January, MTA Vice President Max Page blasted the agreement as "extortion" and said the approval amounted to telling the city to "Hand over $7 million more in public school funds to Alma del Mar, and throw in a public building for free," or risk losing more money to a larger expansion.
"You have weaponized the charter expansion process, holding a gun to the head of the city, its students and its parents," Page told the board.
Sen. Patricia Jehlen used similar language after Thursday's Senate session in which she made a motion that automatically postponed consideration of the New Bedford bill until the next week.
She said the idea "doesn't appear to be an initiative of the city" and that the city "appears to have had a gun to its head." Asked who was holding the gun, she said, "Oh, the commissioner."
Voters in 2016 rejected a ballot question that would have lifted the cap on charter school enrollment in Massachusetts, and charter school-related measures remain controversial on Beacon Hill, where lawmakers are hoping to overhaul the state's school funding formula this year.
"The charter school debate is probably one of the most heated, controversial debates in our state, and it's been going on for years," Senate President Karen Spilka said when asked about the New Bedford matter on WGBH Friday. She did not stake out a position on which expansion method should be pursued.
--Katie Lannan, State House News Service