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Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Massachusetts Charter School 'No' Vote: Fiercest Question 2 Opponents Often from Communities with Existing Charter Schools

From MassLive

By Phil Demers
November 13, 2016

"Community members and parents I talk to want to fight for the resources to improve the public schools we already have rather than opening more schools."



In Tuesday's election Massachusetts voters sent a strong message on ballot Question 2 — rejecting a proposal that would have allowed the state to approve up to 12 new or expanded charter schools a year – despite strong support from Governor Charlie Baker and significant advertising dollars behind a "Yes" vote.

Several school districts across the state with existing charters — including Somerville, Easthampton, Hadley, South Hadley, Greenfield, Holyoke and Adams/Cheshire — viewed the charter school expansion most negatively, rejecting the proposal by a 70-30 margin on average vs. the statewide 62-38 margin.

Adams-Cheshire Regional School District — comprising Cheshire Elementary, C.T. Plunkett Elementary School and Hoosac Valley Middle & High School — was, at the start of fiscal 2016 planning, stuck with a "$1 million budget deficit, and already weighs in at about $1,500 below the state average for per pupil spending," according to The Berkshire Eagle.

Meanwhile, Berkshire Arts & Technology Charter Public School (BArT) — located in downtown Adams, the heart of ACRSD — siphoned as much as $700,000 from the ACRSD budget in fiscal 2015 and $894,000 more by the end of fiscal 2016.

Under a reimbursement formula, the state pays school districts 100 percent of per pupil revenue lost to charters in the first year and 25 percent for the next five years. This reimbursement softened the blow ACRSD would have suffered in fiscal 2016 by $119,000.

Even with a 2015 Proposition 2.5 override in Cheshire — approved by a 65-percent majority in this rural community with a significant senior population — the district needed to slash 12.5 teachers just to keep the fiscal 2016 budget flat.


Home to more than 230 students and 50-plus staff Cheshire Elementary School now faces a shut-down, which some school officials view as inevitable, despite the willingness of the residents to approve a tax increase in order to help the Cheshire Elementary School.

"We're always willing to give a little more to help the school," said longtime Selectwoman Carol Francesconi, in a MassLive interview Thursday.

Many town and school officials have repeatedly and directly blamed ACRSD's perennial budget problems on the elephant in the room: BArT. It's not the only factor straining budgets, but is certainly seen as the most unfair.

The officials also believe this view is why Adams and Cheshire voted so strongly against ballot Question 2 — which proposed lifting the cap on charter schools — in Tuesday's election.

"I would say it had something to do with it, absolutely," Adams-Cheshire Business Administrator Erika Snyder said Thursday.

The district's annual loss to BArT closely mirrors "the amount (ACRSD is) in deficit" each year, said Cheshire Elementary School Principal Peter Bachli. The $10,000-plus annual dollar figure attached to every student follows them out of their home school districts and goes to any other school they choose to attend.

Added Synder, "We've reiterated and stressed in all of our budget presentations the impact that (the charter school) has on our budget. We could be doing a great deal more with that money. I don't know how anyone can say (charter schools) aren't taking from the public school systems. The numbers are clear and direct and I'm watching the money go out (of the budget)."

BArT, on the other hand, in 2015 completed a $4.5 million expansion — increasing the building's size by 25 percent — and lifted its cap to admit more students, potentially siphoning more money away from local public schools.

Julia Bowen, Executive Director of BArT, told MassLive she wished the state reimbursed school districts more for students they lose to charters, to reduce the "tension" between charter and public schools.

"I wish there was a way to better fund (reimbursements)," Bowen said. "What I personally care about is providing families with another option. I wish money didn't have to get in the way."

She added, "I understand that it's difficult. But these districts are no longer serving the students (who attend charters), so they shouldn't be receiving money to serve those students."

The strong "No" votes in Adams and Cheshire conformed to a pattern observed by MassLive in the Question 2 returns generally.

It wasn't true in every case — notably in Eastern Massachusetts, where opposition was not as strong as in the rest of the state — but almost all of the fiercest Question 2 opponents were cities and towns whose public schools are losing money to charter schools.

Easthampton topped all Massachusetts municipalities in the strength of its opposition — 76.2 percent voted " No," or 7,324 against 2,290 "Yes" votes — and that city will lose $940,000 to its charter school, Hilltown Cooperative Charter Public School, in fiscal 2016.

"It comes right off the top," Easthampton Mayor Karen Cadieux said Thursday. "If you're saying it doesn't cost us anything, then you need to explain why I'm $940,000 short."

Hadley and South Hadley also followed the pattern, voting "no" to the tune of 73.7 and 68.9 percent. South Hadley contains Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter Public School and Hadley houses Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School.

Despite being located in Eastern Massachusetts, where opposition to Question 2 was not as high as in the rest of the state, Somerville also voted strongly against Question 2, with 71.2 percent of voters opposed. The city houses Prospect Hill Academy Charter School.

Greenfield, where Four Rivers Charter Public School makes its home, voted against Question 2 by 71 percent. In Holyoke, which contains Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School, 66 percent opposed.

One exception was Chelsea, which voted at a comparatively low general opposition of 55.2 percent, and contains the charter school Excel Academy.

"I can understand in big cities, maybe, where some public schools leave something to be desired, but here everybody sees the charter school taking money from the public schools, and without it the kids in the public schools would be getting better," Francesconi said.

Bachli said, "Community members and parents I talk to want to fight for the resources to improve the public schools we already have rather than opening more schools."

He added, "It's as if the refrigerator light went out and instead of fixing it you bought a new refrigerator."

Bowen pointed out that home districts lose student revenue to vocational and technical schools and when students choice into another district, but charters seem to bring about the most angst.

"(ACRSD's) budget is in trouble anyway. that could be why they are even more upset about us," she said. "The reality is if we weren't around they would be struggling mightily with their budget anyway."

Both Bachli and Cadieux said either state reimbursements need to increase or a the transfer of per pupil revenue to different schools when students leave their home districts should stop entirely, in favor of a new paradigm.

"(Charter schools do) negatively impact the budgets of the districts they are housed in, and is seen by residents as a problem," Bachli said.

Cadieux added, "The whole issue should never have been about raising the cap and allowing more charter schools. We're not even at the cap now. It should have been about changing the way charter schools are funded and held accountable."

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