Board votes to shut Springfield charter school

By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / January 27, 2010

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MALDEN - The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted unanimously yesterday to close a Springfield charter school, two months after a state investigation revealed widespread cheating among administrators and staff on the MCAS exams last year.

“The kids and the parents are the victims,’’ Thomas Fortmann, a state board member from Lexington, said before the vote, which was held at a senior citizen center near the state’s education headquarters. The state has shut down five charter schools over the years for poor academic performance or other reasons.

Mitchell Chester, the commissioner of elementary and secondary education, recommended last month that the Robert M. Hughes Academy in Springfield be closed at the end of the school year, after an investigation by his department found the school’s principal orchestrated an extensive plan to cheat on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System tests last spring, enlisting the support of several teachers and other staff members.

The investigation revealed, among other things, that the principal or another administrator had instructed teachers to tell students to double-check answers when they spotted wrong answers and that one teacher helped a student write an essay for the exam, fearing that the principal would otherwise fire him.

Also yesterday, board members strongly resisted calls to rescind approval of a Gloucester charter school that has created a political firestorm, saying they lack legal authority to do so. The panel also discussed whether to close a Lowell charter school with more than 900 students, an issue the board might vote on next month.

Created under the 1993 Education Reform Act, charter schools are independently run public institutions that are supposed to offer a more innovative education than traditional public schools and achieve superior results.

Many charter schools have some of the strongest MCAS scores, prompting a new law this month that could double the number of charter school seats in the state’s lowest-performing districts. Before yesterday’s vote, leaders of the 11-year-old Hughes Academy pleaded with the board to give them another chance, arguing they have taken steps to remedy the problem. They argued that they placed the principal - Janet Henry, who has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing - on leave last fall and hired a permanent replacement.

“We apologize to the governor, to this board and the commissioner and his staff, to the Massachusetts taxpayers, and, most importantly, to the children and parents of our school,’’ Bill Walls, chairman of the school’s board of trustees, said in his opening remarks.

But several board members did not feel that a change in leadership was enough, given that several of the teachers involved in the scandal are still at the school.

They also were aghast that none of the teachers stepped forward to report the cheating.

An unusually high spike in English and math scores at the school raised suspicion among state education officials that something may have been awry. It followed an order by the state education board last January for the school to improve its MCAS scores and address some trustee governance issues or face possible closing, marking the second time the state board renewed the school’s five-year charter with such conditions.

After the meeting, Walls said it was a sad day, but vowed to appeal the decision before a state administrative hearing officer. If trustees are unsatisfied with the end result, they could then pursue their case in court.

Some of the more heated exchanges yesterday came as the board for the first time addressed the inspector general’s report on the controversial approval of the Gloucester Community Arts Charter School.

In that report, Inspector General Gregory W. Sullivan accused education officials of destroying key documents as part of an alleged coverup that Chester had recommended approval of the school for political reasons, instead of merit.

State education officials, including the department’s lawyer, disputed many of the findings when providing an overview of the report to board members.

At one point, Sullivan, who sat in the audience, stood up and told the board, “Many comments made today are inaccurate and could be contradicted by looking at the record.’’

He asked the board to seek legal advice from Attorney General Martha Coakley on whether the board could, in fact, void its approval.