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Charter schools in limbo

Plans on hold as state debates a moratorium

When Julia Sigalovsky met with the bank recently to discuss a loan for the Advanced Math and Science Academy Charter School, the credit officer said her request would have to be put on hold. With a proposed moratorium on new charters putting the school's future in doubt, his hands were tied.

''They said there was too much uncertainty," said Sigalovsky, the school's founder. ''It's understandable. It's not their problem. But it's very frustrating."

As a measure freezing new charter schools is pending at the State House, plans for the Marlborough-area school have been thrown into limbo. Approved by the state Board of Education in February to open to sixth- and seventh-graders in 2005, the charter school now faces the prospect of a yearlong delay.

Governor Mitt Romney vetoed the moratorium late last month, but legislators are rallying support for an override. The moratorium would prevent new charters from being awarded and delay the opening of the Marlborough school and four other schools for one year.

It is unclear whether moratorium supporters have enough votes to enact the measure. The House, which would be the first chamber to consider an override, originally voted by voice vote. The Senate approved the moratorium by a 2-to-1 ratio, enough votes to to sustain a veto.

Amid such ambiguity, Sigalovsky said, it is difficult to know how to proceed.

''Different people say different things," she said of the moratorium's likelihood. ''No one has a crystal ball."

By jeopardizing private and public grants, the moratorium risks making the school financially unfeasible, she said. The school has received a $200,000 federal grant, which is contingent on the school opening next year.

Moratorium supporters oppose the way charter schools, which are publicly financed but operate free of district control, take money from existing district schools. In Marlborough, administrators say they would lose as much as $9,000 for each student who leaves to enroll in the charter school.

The Legislature's budget included $37 million to partially reimburse local districts for the money they now send to charter schools. Charters must raise their own money to lease space for a school.

In an effort to resolve the funding debate, Romney released a plan that would reduce what public schools send to charters. But Representative Stephen LeDuc said the plan does not go far enough.

''I still believe it's coming up short in terms of addressing the equity issue," said the Marlborough Democrat. Beyond the financing, a moratorium is needed to revamp charter school approval and oversight, he added.

''There's a growing consensus the governing policies need to be evaluated," he said.

Some legislators say the moratorium could be quashed if representatives and Romney can reach a compromise on how charter schools are financed. But Katie Robey, a Marlborough School Committee member, said moratorium supporters also want a more rigorous selection process for charters.

In the meantime, parents who want their children to attend the charter school wait and worry.

Evelyn Lima said she and her son Ian, who will attend sixth grade in a Shrewsbury public school this fall, are ''very upset" he might not be able to attend the charter school as a seventh-grader. If he cannot attend that year, he is out of luck, because he will be one year ahead of the school's plans to expand through high school.

Lima was drawn to the school's emphasis on math and science -- subjects Ian enjoys -- and emphasis on repetitive, focused teaching, she said.

''That school would be perfect for him, and he was totally thinking he would go," he said. ''Now he doesn't know what's going to happen.

Lima and her family had intended to move from Shrewsbury to Marlborough to be closer to the school. But with its opening in question, they have shelved their plans to buy a condominium for now.

''If it doesn't happen, there's no reason to move," she said.

Sandra Witkos's daughter Katherine, who enters sixth grade this fall and is signed up for the charter school, reads the paper each day for updates on the moratorium. She likes Marlborough's public schools but is excited by the charter's focus on science. Like Ian Lima, she would miss out on the school if the moratorium stands.

''They say it's just a year, but it's not just a year for my daughter," Witkos said. ''It's her education."

Sigalovsky said she receives calls daily from parents interested in enrolling their children at the charter school. Besides not being able to tell the parents anything definite, she is also not sure what to tell the eight staff members drawing up curriculum plans for the school.

And on a personal level, after working for two years to receive the go-ahead for the school, Sigalovsky feels stung by a ''retroactive moratorium" she calls ''fundamentally unfair.

''I don't think it's fair to hold hostage hand-picked schools," she said, alluding to the fact that not all new charters are subject to the moratorium.

Peter Schworm can be reached at

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