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Gloucester charter school violated bidding process, AG says

By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / September 16, 2010

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The state attorney general’s office ruled yesterday that a new charter school in Gloucester, which is experiencing a series of delays in opening this fall, violated state law by failing to put out to bid its yet-to-be completed building project.

The ruling was made just one day after a state education commissioner warned Gloucester Community Arts Charter School that it would lose its state-granted operating license if classes do not begin by the end of next week.

That edict has charter school leaders scrambling to secure a temporary location because the permanent building won’t be ready until late October at the earliest.

The prospect of never opening would be a stunning turn for a school that has sparked several state investigations, a Superior Court lawsuit, and accusations by charter school opponents that the Patrick administration pushed state education officials to grant a charter nearly 19 months ago in an effort to build support for its education agenda. A Superior Court judge upheld that assertion in a ruling last month.

Charter schools are public institutions that operate independently of a municipality’s school system.

Colin Zick, a Boston lawyer representing the charter school, said school leaders have every intention of beginning classes within the next few days.

He said that they hope to locate temporarily in either Rockport or Beverly and that school leaders will comply with the request by the attorney general’s office to file a compliance plan for the bidding violations by next Friday. The school is expecting about 90 students in grades 4 to 7.

“In the universe of things going on, this ruling doesn’t change anything about whether we will open,’’ Zick said.

Jill Butterworth, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Martha Coakley, did not address in an e-mail whether the ruling could lead to a halt in construction.

Heidi Guarino, chief of staff at the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said that the ruling would not nullify the school’s charter but that the school is running close to not meeting a state deadline to open within 19 months of receiving its charter, a time frame that would end next Friday.

After conducting an investigation this summer, the attorney general determined that the charter school violated the state’s bidding law at least twice.

In March, the school signed a lease with Cape Ann Medical Office Building LLC that specified designs, construction work, and contractors to convert an office building into a school without putting the job out to bid.

Later in the summer, when it became clear the landlord could not finish renovating the building in time for school to start, he brought in modular classrooms without soliciting bids.

“The source of money to pay for the construction is public taxpayer funds, which will be used to pay the landlord back in the form of lease payments,’’ Jed M. Nosal, assistant attorney general and chief of the Business and Labor Bureau, wrote in a letter to charter school leaders yesterday.

The charter school has been hotly contested by Gloucester city leaders and many supporters of the city’s school system.

Gloucester will eventually have to divert millions of dollars in state aid to the charter school to cover the tuition cost of residents who attend.

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