New Bedford Public Schools must not be extorted

State Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley has rolled a proverbial Trojan horse into New Bedford with his plan to allow expansion of the Alma del Mar charter school. This scheme hands over public assets at no charge to a private company and carves out a neighborhood district that will automatically feed students into the charter school.

Mr. Riley’s deal is not only bad for New Bedford, it is bad for public schools across the state. They will become the targets of this new approach to aid and abet the growth of charter schools,even though voters overwhelmingly defeated a 2016 ballot question that sought a massive charter school expansion in Massachusetts.

The arguments and issues raised in 2016 have not changed. Charter schools are private businesses with no oversight by democratically elected officials — even though they take away public funds from the public schools that educate all children.

Proponents of the Alma del Mar plan are calling it a compromise. In reality, it is extortion. 

Alma del Mar wanted to expand by 1,188 seats. Swift and loud community outcry followed. From parents to elected leaders, the community’s message was clear: Such an expansion would drain $15 million annually from the New Bedford Public Schools, causing catastrophic harm to the city.

Mr. Riley and Alma del Mar CEO Will Gardner concocted a plan that, if implemented, would allow the charter school to expand by 450 seats. The city must hand over the closed Kempton school building plus the land adjacent to it and create a “neighborhood zone” from which students are automatically enrolled in the school, thus doing away with thcitywide admissions lottery.

At the Jan. 22 meeting of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, Mr. Riley set a 45-day timeline for ironing out the details of this plan. If this fails, he will take it off the table and grant Alma del Mar an additional 594 seats.

So is this about providing educational opportunities for the children of New Bedford or threatening a community into bending to the will of the charter school industry, which has the robust support of the administration of Governor Charlie Baker.

Mr. Gardner, who has always based his desire to expand his business empire on the claim that he has a long waiting list of applicants, seems quite willing to ignore those families if given the proper economic enticements of a free building and a guaranteed pool of students.

And what does New Bedford gain from this deal? Nothing, unless you consider losing less money than originally feared a victory. And we should not.

Here are some facts: 

• Roughly one-third of the teachers currently at Alma del Mar are not licensed by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
• Alma del Mar has a very high suspension rate. Many of its students, primarily those with a high level of needs, are sent back to the New Bedford Public Schools. 
• There is no transparency about what is happening in the school, even though it takes public funds for its operation.
 

This plan still needs the approval of state legislators and local officials. The New Bedford Educators Association urges our locally elected leaders to reject any charter school expansion and encourages them to speak out against any form of extortion from the DESE.

As Massachusetts embarks on its first serious effort in more than 25 years to improve funding for public education, let’s honor the will of the voters and put an end to the practice of propping up the charter school model. Let’s instead focus on creating public schools across the state that meet the needs of every student and family.

Lou St. John

New Bedford Educators Association

New Bedford coalition blasts education board’s charter scheme

The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted today to force an irresponsible proposal upon the students and families of New Bedford in approving a plan that requires the community to give up millions of dollars in public school funding and hand over a public building at no cost to the Alma del Mar charter school so that the school can expand by 450 seats and draw students directly out of the district, according to the New Bedford Coalition to Save Our Schools.
“This so-called compromise is no compromise at all,” said Ricardo Rosa, co-chair of the NBCSOS, who attended the BESE meeting.
The board voted to proceed with a radical hybrid that allows a charter school to expand and fill its seats from a single neighborhood school district.
“If the city did not go along with this plan, the board said it would simply allow Alma to expand by even more seats and drain more funds away from our real public schools,” Rosa said. “None of this is in the best interests of the students of New Bedford. Instead, it benefits Alma del Mar and its investors.”
MTA Vice President Max Page called the proposal “extortion” in his public testimony before the board.
“You have weaponized the charter expansion process,” Page told the board.
Page pointed out the deep flaws in the proposal put forward by Education Commissioner Jeffery Riley. It requires the city to give away a publicly owned building to the private organization that operates Alma del Mar, he said, and it would automatically enroll students at a school that is not overseen by city officials.
“Not a word was spoken today about the pain inflicted on the 95 percent of public school students attending real public schools,” Page said. “Charters have already siphoned away millions from the city’s proud public schools, run by a democratically elected school committee. This whole process has been deeply undemocratic. Advocates for public education across the state should be very worried if this scheme moves forward. Secretary of Education Jim Peyser made clear that this is a model he would like to replicate across the state.”
New Bedford Educators Association President Lou St. John said that the proposal benefits Alma del Mar but does nothing to address the issues raised by parents and educators about the funding that any charter expansion takes away from district schools.
“The NBEA has said all along that we do not support any expansion of charter seats in the city,” he said. “Our public schools are currently underfunded by $40 million, and the city already loses $15 million to charter schools. I urge our local officials to support the public schools that educate all children and to fight alongside us for the funding our students deserve.”
MTA President Merrie Najimy criticized Riley and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education for being such staunch advocates of the charter school industry while ignoring the concerns of students and families in New Bedford.
“The commissioner would not even attend a community forum to listen to what some of the 400 parents, students and educators in attendance had to say about charter school expansions,” Najimy said. “Yet the commissioner managed to find time to come to New Bedford to meet with Alma Del Mar’s leaders and attend other pro-charter-school events.”

MTA Fund our Future Community Forum

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As you may know the foundation budget from the state is the main source of funding for public schools.  A commission was formed to review the foundation budget to make sure it still meets the needs of education.  It was found that the foundation budget grossly underfunded our schools. New Bedford Public Schools is underfunded by over 40 million dollars a year.  MTA is supporting legislation that will change the foundation budget calculation to correct the underfunding. 
The Fund our Future campaign is to educate and get support for communities to ask the state house to pass the same legislation already passed by the state senate to correct the foundation budget.
There will be a community forum held on  Jan 8, 6-8pm at Keith Middle School auditorium  (225 Hathaway Blvd, New Bedford) – it’s directly across the street from New Bedford HS)
The panel will include:
1. Rebecca Cusik, President Fall River Ed Assoc
2. Supt Cabral, Taunton
3. Supt Shaver-Hood, Wareham
4. Supt Sawyer, Attleboro
5. NBPS COO
6. Mayor Mitchell, New Bedford
7. Supt Malone, Fall River
We would like to have as many teachers and community members attend as possible.