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Hostility inflames charter school debate

Proposals unleash bitter rivalry, revolt

They've inspired ugly accusations, hateful letters, and, in some cases, veiled threats.

First approved in 1994, Massachusetts charter schools were designed to be incubators of educational experiment, giving public money to people who dreamed up creative curriculums. But almost every Commonwealth charter pitched in the last three years has unleashed community revolts and created bitter rivalries.

Charter parents say public students pick on their kids. Children say their public school teachers have pressed them to sign petitions protesting new charters. School committee members have repeatedly called neighbors, imploring them to step down from charter boards. And fliers have circulated, sounding the death of public schools if a charter school opens.

"The tensions out there are quite high," said Kristin McIntosh, associate state Education Commissioner for Charter Schools. "There are some school districts where the climate has been far more hostile."

Arguments have broiled so fiercely that state Department of Education officials asked several local superintendents in the last two years to stop inappropriate politicking, said Heidi Perlman, DOE spokeswoman. "Is it legal for districts to publicly speak out? It's perfectly legal. Is it appropriate? Absolutely not," she said. "It's completely inappropriate in any way to pressure or for parents to feel threatened."

Opponents of charters, including school superintendents, say they are defending their institutions from a force that threatens the financial health of traditional public schools. The charter system is unfair, they say, because districts must relinquish several thousand dollars for every student who leaves to attend a charter. Charters are cheaper schools to operate; the start-ups can save money because they are not required to offer special education services or English instruction for non-native speakers.

Charter opponents say they're doing nothing unfair, because they are up against a governor who is pushing for more charter schools. Fifty charter schools now exist, with five more to open this fall. Last month Governor Mitt Romney asked that the state allow even more by ending restrictions that limit the number of students in each district who may enroll in them. That has infuriated opponents.

"A handful of people able to impose an enormously expensive publicly funded school on a community and, in so doing, undermine educational opportunity for the majority of children, is a policy that should meet strong opposition," said charter opponent Paul Dunphy, an analyst with Citizens for Public Schools.

There are more charter schools on the way. Last week, state Education Commissioner David P. Driscoll recommended that the state approve four new charter schools.

In some cases, community tensions increased after a charter school opened.

Organizers of Plymouth's Rising Tide Charter School, launched five years ago, are offering a curriculum steeped in local and state history. As a result they endured cold shoulders and sniping letters to local editors. On Oct. 24, 2003, a public school student jumped two Rising Tide students at a charter school bus stop, said Director Jill Crafts. Though the police did not list a reason for the fight, Crafts says that after talking with her students she believes the incident's roots lie in continued resentment against the charter.

Bernard Sidman, Plymouth schools' superintendent until 1999 and a vigorous opponent of Rising Tide, said he doubts Crafts's interpretation of the incident. But he acknowledged children have become pawns in political fights, a tactic he loathes. "The real confrontation was between my office and the state Department of Ed.," Sidman said.

Julia Sigalovsky, backed by the commissioner, plans to open the Advanced Math and Science Academy in the Marlborough area. The concept would be loosely based on the rigorous Soviet-style schooling she received in her native Moscow, with six compulsory years of algebra, geometry, physics, and chemistry. Her pitch drew sharply worded fliers urging taxpayers to oppose a school based on an unsuccessful "Eastern European" model.

Parent Sandra Witkos said teachers have stuffed several opposing missives inside her children's backpacks. Julia Sherman, 11, said one of her teachers passed around a petition in school against the charter. Sign, she said the teacher directed, because if not, school band will be cut.

Her father, Steve Sherman, said he watched a woman on public access cable warn viewers that students would be angry with other students attending the charter. "I thought: `She's trying to prepare the parents to respond in that way,' " he said.

Rose Marie Boniface, Marlborough's superintendent of schools, said the district sent just one letter home to parents to provide information and has not engaged in inappropriate lobbying. "I think most people know so little about it, they're searching for what's correct information and what's not," she said.

In Cambridge, the superintendent and school committee members have called people who have lent support to the proposed Community Charter School of Cambridge -- a creation of former Rindge and Latin headmaster Paula Evans -- and urged them to break from the project. A few charter board members stepped down, said Nancy Walser, a Cambridge School committee member. She said opponents never pressured, but merely passed along information.

Sometimes community pressure is more indirect. North Adams business owners are worried that some residents will shun their businesses because they support the local charter school, said Keith Bona, a former city councilor. Mayor John Barrett III recently began his 11th term vowing to defeat the charter and has filed a lawsuit that is proceeding through the courts.

The mayor "can make their life difficult," said Bona, a graphic designer. People are worried, he said, that supporting the future Berkshire Arts and Technology Charter School against the mayor's wishes could slow permits or deny local business city contracts. "It's not like people are going to have cement shoes at the bottom of Windsor Lake," he said.

Barrett denied that city officials are improperly lobbying. "The reason for greater hostility is because [the charter movement] is continuing to try to expand their empire," he said.

But pressure is sometimes successful. The Fields Charter School of Waltham would have educated children through farming. Waltham residents detested the notion. "It became a refrain," said creator Alyssa Whitehead-Bust. " `We don't want our students to be farmers.' "

Last year, the city bused in dozens of opponents to public hearings held by the state Department of Education. Representative Thomas M. Stanley, a Waltham Democrat, said charter opponents were effective, without bullying. Inappropriate pressure "is a big spin that the DOE . . . is throwing out," he said. "They need to do a better job convincing people why we need charter schools."

Whitehead-Bust said she's interested in floating the proposal again, but in a different community. This time, she said, she won't repeat her tactical error -- not sponsoring forums to explain the proposal herself. Educators guiding her said forums would be disastrous. Said Whitehead-Bust: "You're going to provide a platform for the opposition."

Suzanne Sataline can be reached at sataline@globe.com.

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