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School leaders are down on charter high

By John Laidler
Globe Correspondent / September 10, 2009

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A proposal for a charter school serving high school students from Peabody, Salem, and Lynn is drawing a chilly reaction from local school officials, who say it would add to the financial stress already facing their districts.

“I believe it’s a mistake for the Commonwealth to increase the number of charter schools when the financial situation for regular school districts is already quite serious,’’ said Salem Superintendent William J. Cameron.

Charter schools are public schools that operate independently from local school committees. The Road to Success Charter School would open next fall and at full enrollment, serve 400 students from the three cities.

The proposal is one of 14 the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education received for new charter schools to be considered by the agency’s board in February. Founding groups will be notified by mid-September which ones will be invited to submit a final application, due in mid-November.

“All three districts are below the state average of students passing the MCAS,’’ Robert Guinto, leader of the Road to Success Charter School founding group, said of Lynn, Peabody, and Salem.

He said the charter school would target students for whom English is not their first language, a population his group believes is being under-served.

Guinto said that his group, which includes a number of current and former residents of the three cities, is eyeing four potential sites for the school, three of them in Salem and one in Peabody.

The school would begin with 220 to 240 students the first year and expand by 100 students the next year, reaching full capacity in the third year.

To help its students succeed, Road to Success would use such innovations as extended learning time. School hours would be 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., with the library open additional hours before and after school. The school also would operate five more days than the 180-day school year.

Rather than moving through school at one grade level at a time, students would progress by meeting proficiency standards in the various academic disciplines. To graduate, students would need to earn the required credits in each of those areas.

“We’ve made the standards very high,’’ said Guinto, whose group includes Joseph Hagan, former president of Assumption College in Worcester. He said the goal is to ensure that all the school’s graduates are ready for college.

Local school officials said the per-pupil tuition costs districts must pay charter schools drain needed resources from regular public schools.

The state provides full reimbursement the first year, and partial reimbursement the next two years, but districts must absorb all costs after that.

“It’s a long-term punitive funding mechanism,’’ said Cameron.

Cameron said charter schools also operate with distinct advantages over regular public schools.

“They don’t operate with teacher tenure in place,’’ he said. “There is no obligation for them to negotiate wages and hours and conditions of employment with their staff. There is a very low likelihood of students being counted as drop-outs’’ because students leaving charter schools typically end up back in regular district schools.

Peabody School Superintendent C. Milton Burnett also opposes the proposed charter school.

“I disagree with the diversion of funds from cities and towns to provide for charter schools,’’ he said, noting that creating new charter schools goes against the state’s efforts to encourage districts to consolidate services.

Peabody School Committee member David McGeney said that he does not fear competition from charter schools. But he contended that there is unfairness both in how charter schools are funded and in the types of students they serve.

“The way I look at it, charter schools start out at third base and the people running them think they have hit a triple,’’ he said, arguing that it is primarily children whose parents are involved in their education who end up attending charter schools.

The Road to Success Charter School is one of four proposed charter schools that would draw students from Lynn. Patricia M. Capano, vice chairwoman of the city’s School Committee, said her concern about all the proposals is their financial impact on the district.

“We all know the funding crisis we are in,’’ she said.

Addressing the opposition that has been voiced locally, Guinto said by e-mail, “We believe parents in these communities deserve a choice. And it is parents, not municipal officials, who deserve the final say when it comes to their children’s education.’’

Guinto said that the creation of charter schools does not mean a loss of public school funding, but a reallocation of it. And he pointed to the reimbursement districts receive.

“Once the Road to Success opens, districts won’t feel a financial pinch for three years after our students enroll in our school,’’ he said in the e-mail.

“This reimbursement was designed to provide districts with three years to adjust to the decline in funding and the corresponding decline in enrollment.’’