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Court allows suit over charter school

A Middlesex Superior Court judge has refused to toss out a lawsuit brought against the state Board of Education to reverse its approval of a charter school slated to open this year in Marlborough.

In March, school committees in Marlborough, Hudson, and Maynard accused the board of violating its own regulations when it approved the Advanced Math and Science Academy a month earlier. The suit alleged that the board wrongfully allowed charter school applicants to submit a revised application without allowing public comment, and the plaintiffs asked the court to reverse the board's approval of the school.

The lawsuit reflects the fierce debate over charter schools, which are publicly financed but operate free of local oversight.

A Superior Court judge last year dismissed a lawsuit brought by North Adams to stop the opening of a local charter school, and charter school supporters had hoped the same would happen in this case. But area school officials said the judge's decision proved they have a valid complaint.

''This is a big win," said John Petrin, assistant superintendent of Marlborough schools. ''This is a protest of the process. What it comes down to is that the [Department of Education] is the only arbiter. . . . There's no recourse to appeal."

The state Department of Education recommends new charter schools to the Board of Education, which has the final say. The board approves most charter applications recommended by the department. The North Adams suit asserted that several members of the Board of Education had ties to charter school interests that constituted a conflict of interest.

Julia Sigalovsky, the charter school's executive director, said she was disappointed by the ruling. She said the school, which the suit names as a defendant, would now have to hire a lawyer. Lawyers from the attorney general's office are defending the state.

''It's very sad that we have to waste time and money on this," she said. ''We are convinced the lawsuit has no merit."

Heidi Perlman, spokeswoman for the Department of Education, said the state's review and approval was proper and said she was confident the court would ultimately agree. Both sides are pushing for a decision before the school's scheduled opening.

Under state regulations, charter applicants must send final copies of their application to each local school superintendent. The rules also require the board and the Department of Education to hold a public hearing on the application. Education officials said changes to the final document were minor and meant to clarify.

Meanwhile, Sigalovsky said school officials have found a location for the school, a Marlborough property that includes fields and will need minor renovations for school use. Sigalovksy declined to name the school's location until it receives an occupancy permit.

Mayor Dennis Hunt of Marlborough, a staunch opponent of the school, said city inspectors would be vigilant in making sure the facility is safe for children, but said the review would not be influenced by the charter controversy.

''They'll be treated as professionals," he said. ''But they won't be catching any breaks."

In an e-mailed statement, Sigalovksy said, ''We would hope that the city would be reasonable in providing the appropriate building permits and authorizations for the school, in the same manner that they would for any other tax-supported institution."

Hunt said he expected the lawsuit will ultimately fail, but added that he hoped it would impede the school as a delaying tactic. ''If we can drag it out longer, maybe they won't be as successful," he said.

Hunt and school officials said the charter school will unfairly divert state aid from their budgets. Marlborough administrators say they will lose as much as $9,000 for each student who leaves to enroll in the charter school.

So far, only 20 Marlborough students have applied, Sigalovsky said. Overall, 131 students from 37 communities from Worcester to Boston have applied to the school, which will feature rigorous instruction in math and science.

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