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Gloucester critics of charter school sue

By David Abel
Globe Staff / June 29, 2010

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A group of parents filed a lawsuit yesterday against the top state education officials, alleging that they approved the opening of a charter school in Gloucester in “blatant violation’’ of the state Board of Education’s regulations governing the granting of school charters.

In the suit filed in Essex Superior Court, the parents argued that the approval was given after the state inspector general issued a report that found the charter for Gloucester Community Arts Charter School, slated to open in September, was “never validly awarded and should be deemed void.’’

“The law states that charter school applicants must pass a rigorous, professional evaluation before a charter is awarded, but the Gloucester school failed its evaluation,’’ said Ian D. Roffman, a Boston lawyer representing the parents. “The state should not reward that failure by taking money away from the Gloucester public schools and giving it to the failed applicant.’’

State education officials declined to comment on the specific allegations.

“We received the lawsuit, and we’ll be reviewing it,’’ said Heidi Guarino, chief of staff to Mitchell D. Chester, commissioner of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, who was named as the defendant. “We’ll be working with the attorney general’s office.’’

“The commissioner has met with the mayor of Gloucester and has committed to do what he can to find a resolution that will work for everybody,’’ said Guarino.

In the suit, the parents say the charter school would have a “significant adverse impact’’ on students and families in Gloucester public schools. They said the school, expected to enroll about 240 from kindergarten through eighth grade, would divert about $2.5 million in state aid.

“This will result in significant cutbacks in Gloucester education programs and city services,’’ according to the lawsuit.

They said Gloucester would be required to incur mandated transportation costs that could exceed $100,000 to bus students to the charter school.

The suit added: “The loss of elementary and middle school-age children from Gloucester public schools will result in larger class sizes, expensive restructuring of the city’s elementary schools, and significant social and academic disruption.’’

Peter Dolan, the lead plaintiff, who has a daughter in elementary school, said the lawsuit was not meant to be a referendum on charter schools.

Christopher Farmer, Gloucester superintendent, declined to take a position on the suit, though he said the cost estimated to his district was correct.

In the suit, the parents contend that the commissioner “concealed’’ a determination by the Department of Education’s charter school office that the school was “not recommended to be chartered because overall they did not meet the criteria for the final charter application.’’

They also allege that the commissioner failed to hold the requisite public hearings and acted for political reasons.

The parents said they want a judge to block the school from opening and to void the commissioner’s decision.

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com.

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