Education officials accused of withholding charter data

By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / January 6, 2010

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State education officials have either destroyed or refused to turn over key documents related to the evaluation of a controversial charter school proposal in Gloucester, in violation of the state public records law, according to a report released yesterday by the state inspector general’s office.

The report provides further ammunition to critics who have questioned the legitimacy of the review process and could complicate an already politically charged charter school debate scheduled to begin on Beacon Hill today as part of a sweeping education bill.

At least two members of the panel that reviewed the charter proposal said they may have shredded their evaluation notes, according to the report from Inspector General Gregory W. Sullivan. The department also hampered the investigation by refusing to comply with the office’s repeated requests for a 29-page evaluation of the charter proposal, the report said.

The findings last night prompted Governor Deval Patrick, who has long had concerns about the Gloucester approval process, and Education Secretary Paul Reville to support a legislative amendment that would nullify the charter. A Gloucester state repre sentative has proposed the highly unusual action, which would circumvent the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, as part of the education bill under consideration today.

In the letter, Reville said he did not agree with all of Sullivan’s conclusions but believed the report and the preceding months of controversies “make the continued existence of the [Gloucester] charter not in the best interests of the school or the community.’’

The board has twice refused Patrick’s requests to rescind its approval last February of the Gloucester Community Arts Charter School, which had generated widespread local opposition and earned a negative review from the education department’s own staff and outside specialists.

The report offers a more detailed account than a letter sent to the governor last Saturday about why Sullivan believes the state’s education agency and its board failed to follow its own rules and regulations in approving the school. In the letter, he recommended that the board void its vote.

The two Gloucester legislators who initially asked Sullivan to investigate the process - Senator Bruce Tarr, a Republican, and state Representative Ann-Margaret Ferrante, a Democrat - called the report’s findings disturbing.

“There clearly was a violation of the public records law,’’ said Ferrante, who filed the amendment to nullify the charter. “What is difficult for most of us to accept is that we can’t go back and review what mistakes may have been made because there is no record there to review the process.’’

Heidi Guarino, the commissioner’s chief of staff, said the department just received the report yesterday and is reviewing it carefully before commenting.

Another adviser to the commissioner, however, said the department did not destroy any public documents and did not treat the Gloucester application differently. The adviser, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the documents that Sullivan said were destroyed were the personal notes taken by individual reviewers during the process, which the department has not collected for at least five years.

“It’s a pretty extreme misunderstanding of how the process works,’’ the adviser said.

The report was released yesterday just before House members caucused on the education bill, which must be approved swiftly if the state is to be eligible for a possible $250 million in federal stimulus dollars reserved for states aggressively seeking to improve their worst schools and expand charter schools. A group of civic, business, and political leaders, including Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino, appeared at a State House rally yesterday to encourage action on the bill. Menino described the legislative proposal as “the civil rights issue of our time.’’ “This is a once in a generation chance to bring more innovation into our system,’’ Menino told the group.

Yesterday’s report, unlike the letter sent to the governor, delves deeply into the political controversy swirling around the charter school’s approval, which has been intensifying in recent months. In September, the Gloucester Daily Times published a Feb. 5 e-mail from Reville urging education commissioner Mitchell Chester to push forward with the Gloucester charter school proposal, even though it had received negative reviews from state specialists. The failure to approve at least one charter school, he said, could alienate key charter school supporters considered necessary to getting Patrick’s education agenda through the Legislature.

“Our reality is that we have to show some sympathy in this group of charters, or we’ll get permanently labeled as hostile and that will cripple us with a number of key, moderate allies,’’ such as the Globe’s editorial page and the Boston Foundation, Reville wrote. “ “It’s a tough but necessary pill to swallow.’’

Chester’s recommendation marked the first time a commissioner gave his agency’s board a favorable review of a proposed charter school that was at odds with the department’s charter school office, which according to Sullivan, is not allowed under the department’s own rules and regulations. When Sullivan asked Chester why he violated the rule, the commissioner said he was unaware of it and that the decision was his alone to make, the report stated.

Sullivan, who was not available for comment yesterday, said the reviewers’ “detailed evaluation records are an integral part of the charter approval process. These records provide accountability and transparency for any determination about whether the applicant met the stated criteria.’’

He further wrote, “It is our contention that all documents pertinent to this determination must be retained by the (charter school office) in accordance with the public records law.’’

The report also faulted Chester for misleading a legislative oversight committee last summer that was examining possible irregularities in the Gloucester charter approval. It also criticized the agency for failing to provide legislators with all the documents they requested.

Jack McCarthy, the inspector general’s spokesman, said the office, which is charged with preventing and detecting government waste and fraud, is examining what steps to take next.

The Gloucester legislators said the matter could be referred to the secretary of state’s office, which investigates public document violations, or the attorney general for possible prosecution.

The possible coverup shocked some officials in Gloucester, where city leaders are worried about losing an eventual $2.4 million in state aid annually to the charter school. Under state law, every student who attends a charter takes with them thousands of dollars in state aid - a point that is causing many communities that are experiencing extreme budget cuts to rebel against the Legislature’s plan to expand charters.

“This charter was granted in the toughest financial situation ever without authority of the law,’’ said Valerie Gilman, Gloucester School Committee chairwoman. “This charter can’t go forward.’’

Frank Phillips of the Globe staff contributed to this report.