NEW BEDFORD — A storm of opposition to the proposed Innovators Charter School descended on the city this week, uniting Mayors Jon Mitchell and Paul Coogan of New Bedford and Fall River with state representatives, city councilors, the New Bedford School Committee, parents, students, teacher union leaders, civil rights groups and advocates from the New Bedford Coalition to Save Our Schools.
Almost 60 people signed up to speak at a public hearing before the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education held Wednesday on the third floor of Kilburn Mill. The audience of more than 150 was dotted with the red shirts and masks of Massachusetts Teachers Association members, who cheered after speeches by local state representatives and school board members and handed out signs at the door.
“Public schools don’t have private boards,” one sign read.
Of the 47 who planned to speak in opposition, many never had a chance, even after state education officials extended the meeting 45 minutes beyond its scheduled time.
Commotion broke out as they packed up their microphones and began to descend the stairs of the former textile mill on West Rodney French Boulevard. Local NAACP President LaSella Hall spoke from a prepared statement.
“The creation of ICS runs contrary to the stance of the NAACP,” he said, and a hush fell back over the room.
“There are several concerns with ICS and charter schools in general,” he said. “ICS would be controlled by a board that is accountable only to themselves. This is problematic and unjust. Schools and their administrators should be accountable to students, their caretakers, and ultimately to the people. Public education is already extremely underfunded.”
Reached by phone Thursday, Hall said he plans to submit his written comments to DESE by the Jan. 7 deadline and suggested others hoping to speak this week do the same. “This game is old. It’s the same tactics,” Hall said. “We’ve been playing this game since 1954.
“This is a discussion that Massachusetts had in 2016, and the people rejected it,” he said, referring to the referendum question to raise the charter school cap in Massachusetts that was defeated five years ago.
But charter seats are available in New Bedford, Fall River and other low-performing districts in Massachusetts, where the law caps charters at 18% of net school spending compared to 9% for other districts.
Innovators Charter School is applying to open admissions for a regional school serving grades 6-12 in the fall of 2022. If approved, ICS would eventually enroll 735 students in a program designed to emphasize STEM classes and provide wider access to early college credit at UMass Dartmouth and Bristol Community College, where co-founder John Sbrega served as president for 17 years until his retirement in 2017.
The school’s proposed Executive Director Meg Mayo-Brown previously served as superintendent of Fall River Public Schools from 2008 to 2016 and has held the same position in Barnstable for the past five years. She plans to leave Barnstable next June to head ICS.
New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell kicked off the parade of opposing voices in a short speech that touched on the city’s enduring hardships related to COVID-19 and the additional costs that the proposed school would cause to the district: “We could eliminate the entire library system and still not make up for the loss this charter school will have on the city,” Mitchell said.
On Tuesday, the mayors of New Bedford and Fall River published a joint letter asking Gov. Charlie Baker to join them in their opposition to ICS and the expansion of charter schools generally in the region.
Their letter details the projected financial impact on their school districts. By the time it completes its enrollment, ICS would cost public school districts $9.4 million annually, they wrote. Alma del Mar, one of two existing charter schools in New Bedford is continuing to expand its enrollment, and Global Learning Public Charter School has also applied to increase its enrollment by 100 seats this year.
The state Department of Education froze the MCAS-based school rating system during the pandemic, a move that New Bedford School Committee member Jack Livramento said should also trigger a freeze in charter school expansion in those districts.
“Why am I against this proposal?” Livramento said Wednesday. “The New Bedford School System is frozen at the bottom 10 percent of school systems across the state for the next two or three years based on MCAS. This restriction was put in place by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. The board recognizes that student education has been impacted by COVID-19. This is also a good time to put a freeze on the expansion of charter schools in New Bedford. We need to stop right now.”
Also speaking in opposition to the charter school plan were New Bedford School Committee members Josh Amaral, Colleen Dawicki, and Chris Cotter; New Bedford and Fall River school superintendents Thomas Anderson and Maria Pontes; Ward 3 City Councilor Hugh Dunn; and state representatives Carole Fiola of the Bristol 6th district, Chris Hendricks of Bristol 11th, and Antonio F.D. Cabral of Bristol 13th.
An hour into the meeting, ICS founder and proposed board chair Sbrega rose to speak.
“ICS will be a public school in every way, open to all students whose families decide that we offer an option best suited to meet their student’s needs and potential,” Sbrega said.
Reached by phone Thursday, ICS co-founder and proposed chief learning and development officer Fran Roy said the concerns raised in Wednesday’s public comment session were “very typical of the opposition to charter schools elsewhere.”
“The starkest difference is we are looking to be a wall-to-wall early college school. That means every student will graduate with a minimum of 12 college credits and up to 60,” Roy said.
Among other things, the school must demonstrate it will meet a need that is not already met by existing schools.
A spokesperson for DESE said staff recorded Wednesday’s meeting up until 6:45 p.m., when it officially ended, and those recorded comments will be included in the material submitted to Commissioner Jeffrey Riley next month, when he will decide whether to recommend ICS’s application for a vote in February.
The state is continuing to accept public comment until Jan. 7.
Email Abigail Nehring at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: This story was amended on Dec. 17, 2021, to correct a photo caption that misidentified one of the attendees at Wednesday’s hearing.
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