Somerville charter group says district lobbying went too far
Charter group files complaint
The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is reviewing a complaint alleging that Somerville public school employees coerced and intimidated parents and misused public funds to spread misinformation about a proposed charter school in the city.
The complaint involves the Somerville Progressive Charter School, a 425-seat school for kindergartners through eighth-graders that would focus on students for whom English is a second language. It is among five proposed charter schools up for consideration by the state.
A public hearing on the proposed school is scheduled for 4 to 6 p.m. Wednesday at Somerville High School.
“It seems the Somerville school district has been using very questionable methods to oppose this charter school proposal,’’ said Marc Kenen, executive director of the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association, which filed the complaint with the state Thursday. The group advocates for charter school education options throughout the state.
The Somerville school district “obviously had a very well-planned campaign,’’ he said. “It’s been their clear plan to do everything they can to use their public funds to spread misinformation about the charter proposal to the Somerville community.’’
Public schools superintendent Anthony Pierantozzi said that although he hadn’t seen a copy of the complaint, he would deny the charge, saying no one has contacted him to lodge similar concerns with his office.
The complaint alleges that parents were intimidated and coerced to sign a petition against the proposed school at parent-teacher conferences while their children’s teachers were present. Kenen said public school teachers have traditionally opposed charter schools because of their labor policies. Three parents complained to him, Kenen said.
“That’s what got us very upset,’’ Kenen said, “when we had parents contact us saying they felt intimidated.’’
Pierantozzi said the charter school proponents were given equal access to parents at Parent-Teacher Association meetings to lobby for the school.
But Selena Fitanides, a founding member of the charter group, said she had been denied entrance to the meetings, and that the School Committee is spreading falsehoods about the charter’s financial impact on the remaining district schools.
“We were unaware of the viciousness, the tactics,’’ Fitanides said. “The tone really surprised us. We’ve continued to be shocked to the level that those in the city have stooped to.’’
Kenen and his group say that the School Committee also spread misinformation about the financial impact on the district of the proposed charter school, which was printed on fliers with school funds and distributed to students in classrooms. They said the School Committee also attempted to intimidate two of the proposed charter school’s founders by contacting their employer, Tufts University, which pressured them to remove their names from the charter application, the complaint said.
“The notion that we could bully Tufts, I wouldn’t know how to do it if I wanted to,’’ said Adam Sweeting, chairman of the School Committee. “That just did not happen.’’
Pierantozzi said the district is following a legal opinion, given verbally by a state Ethics Commission attorney Dec. 2, that affirms the School Committee’s right to argue against the charter school and to use public money for the advocacy.
The School Department, in a fact sheet posted on its website, said the charter school at full capacity would cost $4.79 million that would have otherwise funded the city’s existing public schools. The loss of funds could lead to slashing 75 teacher jobs, the closure of one of the city’s eight elementary schools, or cutbacks to enrichment programs and after-school activities, the fact sheet states. Further, it states that in the first five years after the charter school opened, it would divert more than $15 million from the other public schools.
But the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association said the state would reimburse the district for hosting a charter school, and that in the first 10 years after the school opened, the city would collect more than $10 million in additional aid from the state.
Pierantozzi contends that relations between the district and charter school officials have so far been professional. “Obviously this is a heated debate, but . . . from what I’ve been made aware of, everyone on both sides has behaved in a civil and respectful manner,’’ the superintendent said.
Pierantozzi said he has tried to stay “as objective as possible,’’ but he expects to testify against the charter school proposal at the state hearing this week.
“Certainly my position will be that this second charter school in the city of Somerville will have a deleterious impact on the public school community,’’ he said.
Matt Byrne can be reached at email@example.com.