Trial date set for charter school case

Gloucester Mayor Carolyn Kirk (center), shown here at the Gloucester Community Arts Charter School last fall, says the state should change the way such schools are funded. Gloucester Mayor Carolyn Kirk (center), shown here at the Gloucester Community Arts Charter School last fall, says the state should change the way such schools are funded.
(Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/File 2010)
By Steven A. Rosenberg
Globe Staff / July 28, 2011

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The short, turbulent history of the Gloucester Community Arts Charter School moved to the courts again last week, when an Essex County judge denied a bid by 15 Gloucester parents to shut down the school while also allowing the suit to continue, setting a January trial date to determine the future of the school.

The lawsuit has been ongoing since last year, when the parents contended that the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education unfairly awarded the school a charter, even after it had determined that it did not meet the requirements for approval. The 15 also asserted that the new charter school would be funded with millions of dollars diverted from the Gloucester school district.

In his ruling, Lawrence Superior Court Judge Robert A. Cornetta denied a preliminary injunction to close the school, which enrolled 90 students last year in grades 4 to 7, saying the closing would create chaos when funding has already been allocated. In a separate ruling, he also denied a motion from the City of Gloucester to join the lawsuit.

“Were this court to now prohibit the charter school from proceeding on to year two of its educational program, the disruption to students and parents would indeed be acute, the Commonwealth would suffer a significant waste of resources now committed to the charter school while the Gloucester public schools would incur the impact of having to provide additional classroom space and teachers for charter school children at a time when its municipal budget and state aid for the year have already been established,’’ Cornetta wrote in his decision. “The potential for disruption just as the new school year is getting off the ground is simply too great.’’

Despite allowing the school to reopen, Cornetta did not dismiss the complaint and set a trial date of Jan. 24, 2012.

Gloucester Mayor Carolyn Kirk opposes the suit, and said the funding formula needs to be changed at the state level so it doesn’t punish districts that have charter schools. Currently, charters are funded by the state, which allots about $11,000 per pupil. This allotment has caused friction between public school districts and charters throughout the state.

Both sides claimed victory after the ruling, which is the second time a judge has rejected the plaintiffs’ call to close the school.

Last summer, Superior Court Judge Richard Welch III also denied the preliminary injunction but wrote that “the plaintiffs present considerable evidence’’ that the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and its commissioner, Mitchell D. Chester, “blatantly ignored and violated state law when granting the GCA [Gloucester Community Arts Charter School] for political reasons.’’

Colin Zick, the attorney who represents the charter school, said he hoped school officials could meet with the plaintiffs to prevent a trial. “This decision is as complete a vindication for Gloucester Community Arts Charter School as is possible at this stage in the proceedings. Twice, the school’s opponents have marshaled massive legal resources against it, and twice this school has prevailed. It is now time to get on with the important business of education,’’ said Zick.

But Ian Roffman, the attorney for the 15 Gloucester parents, said he looks forward to a quick trial. “The parents who filed the lawsuit are thrilled that there is a firm and quick trial date. The court did nothing to upset the decision last year that the Board of Education violated state law when it awarded the charter and that the parents have legal standing to pursue their claims,’’ said Roffman. “This is a school that failed to meet the approval criteria after a rigorous professional application when it first applied for a charter.’’

The school has had a turbulent history since it was awarded a charter two years ago. Prior to opening, the state’s inspector general released a report stating the charter had been issued because of political pressure on the state’s education leaders. Also after construction delays, the school opened three weeks late - and after the attorney general charged that the charter had violated state bidding laws in obtaining a lease and modular classrooms. Chester, the education commissioner, put the school on probation - a designation that he lifted last December.

Tony Blackman, the school’s executive director, said he is pleased with the court’s decision. “It allows us to look to the future,’’ said Blackman, who noted that 196 students have signed up for the school this year, which is adding grades 2, 3, and 8. Next year, it will add grades K-1, making it a K-8 school, with a maximum of 240 students.

Gloucester Superintendent Richard Safier said the charter would be funded with $600,000 in state allotments that otherwise have gone to the Gloucester district. He added that the district recently cut 40 school employees, including teachers and paraprofessionals in all schools, to help make up for a $2 million budget shortfall.

Safier added that with this year’s anticipated increased charter enrollment, the district stands to lose over $1 million.

Safier declined to take a side in the lawsuit but said the issue comes down to funding. “What started out as a competition for ideas has really turned into a competition for funding,’’ he said.

Steven A. Rosenberg can be reached at