Lawyers for the Massachusetts Teachers Association notified New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell yesterday that the city’s attempt to give away the Kempton School property at no cost to the Alma del Mar charter school for its proposed expansion appears to violate state law.

Mitchell, state Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley, Alma del Mar CEO Will Gardner and New Bedford Public Schools Superintendent Thomas Anderson brokered a deal out of public view to allow the charter school a 450-seat expansion if the city is willing to give away its closed school building and land on Shawmut Avenue. The deal also requires New Bedford to redraw its district lines and place families into the charter school instead of having Alma del Mar seek applicants and admit students by lottery, as state law requires.

The letter sent to Mitchell raised three legal points concerning the gifting of the Kempton School and surrounding property to the charter operator:

· The memorandum of understanding reached between Riley and the city appears to violate the state’s Uniform Procurement Act since the city did not put out a request for proposals or establish why the Kempton School property would be transferred to Alma del Mar for a sum below market value — namely, zero dollars.

The agreement may violate a state law concerning the transfer of public property and the specific use of the property.  The MTA questioned why the Kempton School was declared to be surplus property when it is being given to a business that will operate a school on the site

· The MOU seemingly violates the “anti-aid amendment” in the state’s Constitution. The MTA contends that Alma del Mar, a private entity, clearly benefits from this gift of a valuable building and property. This unorthodox deal is clearly not based on a unique situation necessary to promote public education, as that can be done without giving away property.

“This whole process has been extremely troubling, and other cities need to pay attention to what is happening in New Bedford as it has statewide implications,” said MTA President Merrie Najimy. “This is clearly a test case promoted by privatizers bent on expanding charter school enrollment after voters rejected their arguments at the ballot box in 2016. First, the charter operators want to drain massive amounts of public funds from public schools — and now they want to make a grab for public land.”

The MTA joined the New Bedford Coalition to Save Our Schools last year when several operators of privately run charter schools sought to open or expand in New Bedford. The Alma del Mar expansion is the only remaining proposal still under consideration this year. The state Board Elementary of Secondary Education acted in January on Riley’s recommendation to let the new model of charter school growth proceed — complete with the takeover of a public building — or allow Alma del Mar an even larger expansion.

“We are facing the worst type of back-door deal,” said Ricardo Rosa, co-chair of the Coalition. “Every student in New Bedford deserves access to a high-quality public education. But instead, our city must contend with severe and chronic underfunding of public schools while also losing nearly $14 million each year to charter schools.”

The coalition, which includes students, parents, educators and community activists, will hold a rally at noon on Saturday, March 23, at the Kempton School site to protest the charter school expansion and the questionable dealings involved.

Lou St. John, president of the New Bedford Educators Association, described the Alma del Mar expansion model as a disaster for urban school districts that are strapped for resources.

“It is frustrating to watch state education officials and a private business engage in a scheme to assist charter school expansion in our city at a time when our public schools are financially struggling to meet students’ needs,” he said.

Information from the Massachusetts Teachers Association