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State refuses to budge on decision to block expansion of Mystic Valley charter school

Posted by Your Town  May 21, 2013 05:20 PM

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FRANKLIN - State education officials on Tuesday refused to back away from their decision to block a planned expansion of the highly ranked Mystic Valley Regional Charter School in Malden, prompting the school’s officials to threaten a lawsuit.

The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education took no action on Education Commissioner Mitchell D. Chester’s decision to impose conditions on the school’s charter renewal, effectively stalling any decision on expanding the school’s student population.

In February, Chester, citing a “clear record of insularity and opaque decision making,” denied Mystic Valley’s request to expand enrollment from 1,500 to 1,900 students. He also placed several conditions on the school’s charter, including a requirement that Mystic Valley expand its board of membership and set term limits for its members.

On Tuesday, after contentious back-and-forth between school representatives and state officials, Mystic Board of Trustees Chairman Neil C. Kinnon called the board’s decision not to overturn Chester’s decision a “mini-IRS scandal,” and said his board will not arbitrarily impose term limits and add members because the state says it has to.

“We are going to follow our own plan about how we are going to replace our board,” he said. “There is no question that there is some level of targeting going on here.”

Mystic Valley School Superintendent Martin L. Trice said it needs to slowly expand enrollment from the current 1,500 students to 1,900 over the next 12 years to maximize academic and after-school programs.

Representatives from Mystic Valley say they will go to court to fight the state’s decision. Attorney John D. Hanify who represents the school, said the decision has raised serious questions about the state’s authority.

“This is a school that passes (academically) with flying colors,” he said. “It is inappropriate and unlawful to impose conditions on its charter renewal.”

Mystic Valley says there are more than 2,500 students on the school’s waiting list. In recent years, the school has been ranked among the top 10 schools in the state by Newsweek, US News & World Report, and The Washington Post.

But Deputy Commissioner of Education Jeff Wulfson said the state is simply representing the public in this case.

“Public schools have elected boards, so there is a level of accountability,” he said. “There is nothing like that in charter school boards, so we have to act on the public’s behalf.”

Wulfson said complaints from parents and teachers about the school “have clearly gone beyond what we’ve seen at other charter schools.”

Those complaints, many from anonymous sources who say they fear retribution from the board, range from a lack of adherence to the state’s Open Meeting Law to a failure of the board to address concerns about transportation, the admission system and other issues.

“The board’s role is not only to be academically successful, but to act as a public body, with transparency and a responsibility to the public,” Wulfson said. “We feel they have fallen short on this too often.”

The conditions -- such as new board members -- are not extreme, according to Wulfson. Three of the board members have been trustees since the school was founded in 1998, he said.

“This is not probation, this is just conditions,” Wulfson said. “I don’t understand the level of push-back on these conditions, which are not very onerous. Most people would say they are perfectly reasonable.”

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