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Opposition dominates charter school hearing

By Matt Byrne
Globe Correspondent / December 18, 2011
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SOMERVILLE - For a hearing packed with charged opinions, frequent applause, and intense disagreement, Ruth Ronen’s three-minute testimony seemed crystallizing.

Turning to the crowd crammed in the Somerville High School auditorium Wednesday, Ronen, a 42-year-old mother of two, asked opponents of a proposed charter school to stand before state education officials seated on the stage feet away to deliver a message:

Parents in this community do not want the Somerville Progressive Charter School.

“Trust me when I tell you,’’ Ronen said, with scores of supporters clapping and whooping behind her. “There are more parents in our community who couldn’t be here on a Wednesday afternoon.’’

Opposition dominated the proceedings, where Ronen was among a few dozen who testified at the state hearing for the charter school, which has drawn deep fissures in the city’s tight-knit education community.

In recent weeks, galvanized detractors have formed Progress Together for Somerville, a grass-roots group that counts hundreds of parents and educators in its ranks, they said. Many appeared at the hearing, wearing white T-shirts bearing the organization’s name and the credo “Ten schools, one community.’’

Now the charter school’s fate lies with the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, which will likely vote on the 168-page prospectus in February.

Proponents of the plan say the charter would fill a need for many low-income and immigrant families who struggle to receive attention in the public schools, or who seek another choice for their child’s education. The planned 425-seat school would be designed for students who are English Language Learners.

The proposed school “does not propose to divide the community, just to provide another option for parents of ELL students,’’ said Gonzalo Carrasco, a founding charter member and Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher.

But divisions were exposed when the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association, which advocates for charter education, filed a complaint with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education on Dec. 8 against the Somerville school district. In the complaint, the group alleges intimidation by the School Committee against charter founders and others, and that the district is improperly using public money to spread misinformation about the school’s financial impact on Somerville schools.

Superintendent Anthony Pierantozzi said previously that the district is operating within a Dec. 2 advisory opinion issued verbally by a State Ethics Commission lawyer. Since then, the School Committee’s resistance to the charter plan has been consistent, led by chairman Adam Sweeting.

In dispute is an information sheet produced and distributed by the Somerville public schools that said the charter running at full capacity would draw $4.79 million that would otherwise fund the city’s public schools, leading to cuts to 75 teacher jobs, the possible closure of one of the city’s eight elementary schools, or cutbacks to enrichment programs and after-school activities.

The charter association said the state would reimburse Somerville for hosting a charter, and that it would eventually reap more than $10 million in additional aid from the school in a decade.

If both camps shared anything, it seemed to be a deep commitment to high-quality, accessible public education, though they remain sharply divided on what that means or how best to achieve it.

“My name is Ally Hines and this room is full of friends,’’ said one charter advocate in her opening comments. Hines, a charter founder, added that she does not believe in “one size fits all,’’ in life or in the schools.

Another who spoke in favor of the plan described how his support grew out of frustration after years of trying with little success to improve the public schools from within.

“For the last six years we tried to get engaged in improving the district,’’ said Kristof Brzezinski, another founding member of the proposed school and a native of Poland. “I as an immigrant would for the first time like some control over my child’s education.’’

A parade of public officials challenged the charter proposal at the hearing. Members of the Board of Aldermen reaffirmed a resolution passed unanimously last week opposing the school. Jacquelyn Lawrence, president of the Somerville Teachers Association, also opposed the charter.

First to speak was Somerville Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone, who reiterated his displeasure with the plan, saying the school would have a “net negative effect’’ on the city.

“While the stated purpose of this charter school is to serve the needs of all ELL students,’’ Curtatone said, “these students are now and will be in the future better served by programs in the current curriculum.’’

Matt Byrne can be reached at mbyrne.globe@gmail.com.

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