Lawsuit alleges that this charter deal would 'open the door wide to political abuse stripping poorer municipalities of their assets'
New Bedford parents and education activists — joined by the Massachusetts Teachers Association — have filed a lawsuit asserting that a deal struck by the private operator of a charter school, the state education commissioner and city officials violates the state Constitution.
The lawsuit is being brought to court as the New Bedford Coalition to Save Our Schools and the MTA are urging state legislators to reject a bill that exempts the city from existing charter school and public property procurement laws.
The lawsuit and the effort in the Legislature both oppose a plan to expand the Alma del Mar charter school. The deal requires the city to hand over public property at no cost to the charter operator and to create a new zone from which students are automatically enrolled unless they opt out.
“This expansion scheme seeks to set a dangerous precedent for public education in the Commonwealth,” said Ricardo Rosa, co-chair of the coalition and the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit. “It also unfairly benefits the charter school industry at the expense of the education that my children — and all of the children in the New Bedford Public Schools — deserve and are entitled to receive.”
In addition to seeking to halt the transfer of the Kempton School building and the land it sits on to Alma Del Mar, the suit seeks to block a provision in the expansion plan that forces New Bedford to pay for the full allotment of seats approved for the charter even if fewer students than allowed for are enrolled.
“This expansion scheme seeks to set a dangerous precedent for public education in the Commonwealth. It also unfairly benefits the charter school industry at the expense of the education that my children — and all of the children in the New Bedford Public Schools — deserve and are entitled to receive.”Ricardo Rosa, co-chair, New Bedford Coalition to Save Our Schools
The lawsuit alleges that the property transfer, enrollment provisions and funding model violate the state Constitution’s Anti-Aid Amendment, which states that no use or appropriation of public money or property will go toward an entity that is not publicly owned and operated. Even though the state granted Alma del Mar its charter, the organization itself is registered with the state as a private corporation.
The suit goes on to state that the new model for charter school growth embodied in the deal would “open the door wide to political abuse stripping poorer municipalities of their assets.”
Late last year, Alma del Mar sought a 1,188-seat expansion that was swiftly met with community and political opposition because of the devastation it would cause to both the public schools and the city’s finances. Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley, New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell, Alma del Mar CEO Will Gardner and New Bedford School Superintendent Thomas Anderson then cut a deal whereby the state would approve a 450-seat expansion as long as the city handed over the publicly owned school and land to Alma del Mar and guaranteed neighborhood-based enrollment rather than using a lottery to fill seats.
The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education approved the plan and stipulated that if these terms were not met, it would grant Alma del Mar a 594-seat expansion, costing the city over $4 million a year more than the 450-seat expansion.
The unprecedented plan requires legislative approval because it seeks to ignore longstanding education policy and law requiring charters to be schools of choice that use lotteries to enroll applicants. The Legislature is also being asked to allow New Bedford to ignore public property procurement laws.
The MTA, which is a member of the New Bedford Coalition to Save Our Schools along with the New Bedford Educators Association, is urging the Legislature to vote down the Home Rule bill that would allow New Bedford and Alma del Mar to violate state procurement laws and charter school laws.
A recent letter from MTA President Merrie Najimy and MTA Vice President Max Page to legislators states that the legislation “seeks to advance a dangerous charter school model, in the form of a Home Rule Petition, that is squarely against the public interest.”
“If passed,” the letter continues, “this model will undoubtedly be used across the state to the detriment of public school districts. The Commonwealth must not be allowed to hold school districts hostage in order to advance the interests of the charter school industry and its backers.”