The commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has ordered the trustees of the Mystic Valley Regional Charter School in Malden to change the way they conduct the school’s business.
Citing a “clear record of insularity and opaque decision making,” Mitchell D. Chester last month placed conditions on the school’s charter and denied Mystic Valley’s request to increase student enrollment.
The school, Chester wrote in a Feb. 8 memo to the state Board of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, “has not consistently operated with transparency or been accessible to all stakeholders.” He noted that each of the five trustees has served on the board for 12 years or more and is involved with the day-to-day management of the school, a practice that runs counter to state guidelines.
Over the years, Mystic Valley’s board of trustees may have regularly discussed matters in executive session that do not fall within the allowable purposes outlined in the state’s Open Meeting Law, according to a review that was submitted last month by Class Measures, an education consultancy based in Woburn that was hired by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
The school’s charter was renewed Feb. 15 with the following conditions:
Beginning this month, Mystic Valley must submit to state education officials board meeting agendas and minutes at the same time those are sent to Mystic Valley’s trustees. The school also will be required to submit any additional information requested by state officials, including quarterly or monthly financial statements.
By May 31, Mystic Valley’s board of trustees must engage in a comprehensive self-evaluation and recruit additional members who have needed expertise; amend its bylaws to set specific, reasonable limits on trustees’ successive or total terms; and apply the limits to all current board members.
By July 31, the board of trustees must expand membership to at least seven members; and by Sept. 30, the board must engage in training, conducted by an external consultant approved in advance by state education officials, on the roles and responsibilities of a public charter school board of trustees.
Failure to meet the conditions may result in the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education placing Mystic Valley on probation, revoking its charter, or imposing additional conditions on its charter, according to Chester’s Feb. 15 letter to the school. Mystic Valley’s progress toward meeting the renewal conditions also will be considered when reviewing future expansion requests.
“Although the board does not agree that the conditions on the five-year renewal were warranted, and that they seem to have singled Mystic Valley out, these concerns are minor when compared with a denial once again to raise the school’s student cap,” Mystic Valley board chairman Neil Kinnon said in an e-mail to the Globe.
“We were very disappointed by Commissioner Chester’s refusal once again to increase the number of students who can attend Mystic Valley and further by his decision not even to bring the request before the Board of Education for a fair hearing,” Kinnon said.
The school has the right to appeal the commissioner’s denial of the request to increase enrollment, Kinnon said, and is “weighing its options.”
No similar right to appeal exists with regard to Chester’s decision to impose conditions on Mystic Valley. Since October 2011, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education has delegated charter school renewals — and renewals with conditions — to the commissioner.
“Pursuant to his delegated authority, the commissioner renewed the charter of [Mystic Valley] with conditions,” said Lauren Greene, a spokeswoman for the department, via e-mail. “While no process for review or appeal exists for this decision, the commissioner has offered to meet with [Mystic Valley].”
This was the second time in as many years that Mystic Valley has unsuccessfully applied for permission to increase its enrollment from 1,500 to 1,900 students, a change that would constitute a major amendment to the school’s charter. “It is heartbreaking for us and for these students and their families that they are being denied the opportunity for the nationally recognized first-class education that Mystic Valley provides,” Kinnon said.
Mystic Valley was granted its original charter in 1998 and today is one of the largest charter schools in the state, serving 1,497 students in kindergarten through Grade 12 from Everett, Malden, Medford, Melrose, Stoneham, and Wakefield. There are 2,383 students on the school’s wait list for kindergarten through Grade 5, according to the Department of Education.
During the most recent site visit, Class Measures reported “the school provided a rigorous academic program, character development, and a structured learning environment. Consistent with its mission, MVRCS has continued to provide strong academics, an education that stresses morals and virtues, and preparation for college.’’Greene, the spokeswoman for the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, acknowledged that “complaints about and concerns regarding Mystic Valley were a factor in imposing conditions on the school’s charter.” She said that although a formal complaint process exists, many concerns about the state’s charter schools come to the department’s attention through other means. In those instances, state officials explain the formal complaint process; it is then up to the complainant to decide whether to pursue the matter further, Greene said.
The educational consultancy hired by the state noted that “Mystic Valley families are satisfied with the school’s academic program as well as the school’s culture, communications, and support . . . the school was described as a nurturing place in which student felt well known by teachers.”
In a survey included in the review, 309 of 345 respondents, or 89.5 percent, indicated that they were satisfied with their decision to send their children to Mystic Valley.
Still, state education records reveal that concerns about the school’s governance have been an issue for many years.
In October 2007, in a memo to the state Board of Education, Jeffrey Nellhaus, then the acting commissioner of education, noted that Mystic Valley’s board of trustees “refused to . . . [set] specific, reasonable limits on successive or total terms that a member may serve” and noted that “the school does not comply with the provisions of the state’s Open Meeting Law,” which requires governmental bodies, when discussing the public’s business, to give advance notice of meetings; hold its meetings in open session; and keep minutes of the meetings and make them public.
Other governance issues also were detailed in the lengthy report issued last month. Under state guidelines, a charter school’s bylaws should prohibit its trustees from managing the day-to-day operations of the school. However, according to the report, inspectors found that Mystic Valley’s board of trustees “makes many decisions that are typically the purview of charter school administrators.”
During a site visit made by Class Measures, teachers said revisions to the curriculum often were slowed because the board must approve changes, and a review of board meeting minutes from 2010 “revealed that the board discussed, voted on, and approved matters regarding the details of instructional practices, after-school activity options, and a multitude of other curricular issues . . .,” the review noted.
The report also stated that the board “does not formally involve stakeholders in some major decisions, such as the development of its strategic plan or the appointment of a director.”
The report states the school’s current strategic plan was developed primarily by Kinnon, and that when the school hired a new executive director, the board did not appoint a committee of teachers and/or parents to participate in the process. Parents said it was “difficult to communicate with the board.”
Kinnon took issue with the findings.
“The school’s board of trustees does not believe it violated the Open Meeting Law,” he said. “Our board meetings are all open and we have [had] open sessions at nearly every one for 15 years.”
Kinnon said a recent conversation he had with Cliff W. Chuang, associate commissioner of the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, revealed that Chester’s decision to impose conditions on the school and deny its request to expand was influenced by numerous complaints state education officials claimed to have received about Mystic Valley and its board in writing, by phone, and anonymously. Kinnon said state officials never shared those complaints with Mystic Valley’s board of trustees and claimed such notification is required by law.
“The only thing ‘opaque’ here is the Department of Education’s explanation on not providing us these complaints they supposedly have, and by law they were supposed to share, so that we could rectify the issues or determine they were baseless and report back to the department,” Kinnon said. “We don’t know if [those complaints] really exist.”
“We do not typically contact schools in these instances, which are the vast majority of the complaints that we receive,” Greene said, noting that state education officials are “in the process of compiling the written complaints [about Mystic Valley] on file, at the school’s request.”