Charter schools would unduly drain the school district of resources and fail to serve a diverse population of district students, said Superintendent of Schools Brian Osborne at the Board of Education meeting on May 16.
While saying that he wanted the conversation on charters in the community to stay "elevated and civil," Osborne's opinions were clear.
Osborne said that while charters can "create opportunities" for students and can be "dynamic," there is "a downside — mostly dollars and diversity."
Osborne spoke as the Board of Education considered passing two resolutions related to charter schools. The first (Res. 2757) would authorize the superintendent to send a recommendation to the the State Commissioner of Education Christopher Cerf regarding the charter school applications; the second (Res. 2759) was in support of the New Jersey School Board Association's Resolution No. A of May 14, 2011, calling for local voters to have a voice in deciding the fate of charter schools in their districts, if those districts are predominantly funded by local taxes.
Both resolutions were ultimately passed.
Osborne said that, with the district obligated to cover 90% of the cost per student, the charters would be paid $11,500 to $12,000 from the district tax levy for each student that opts into the charter.
"It would indeed siphon off money," said Osborne, as he noted that 6 to 8 charter school students would amount to the costs of a salary. Osborne said that this was exacerbated by the fact that, at this time, "we have been really tight on the budget."
[Earlier in the meeting, a parent had testified that charters did not "siphon away funds from the district. The funds belong to the students."]
Those 6 to 8 students would not be clustered, Osborne noted. Thus, the district "wouldn't be able to reduce costs or close a section." He noted that there was a multiplier effect: Ten students would amount to $100,000 in tax levy dollars leaving the district.
Between the two proposed charter schools, Osborne said, the state projected that they would draw 100 students from the district in September 2012. "That's north of $1 million from us — without the corresponding reduction in cost drivers."
Osborne also made the point that the tax levy does not go up or down on a per pupil basis.
Regarding the Hua Mei application, Osborne questioned the "intent" and "thought process" of the founders, saying the application lacks language about commitment to special needs students, students from economically challenged households and English language learners (South Orange-Maplewood has a large number of ESL students from Africa and Haiti, among other non-Mandarin-speaking countries).
In addition, said Osborne, "We score as a highly performing district. We don't think the legislature envisioned this in the mid-90s when charters started." Osborne questioned whether there was a real need for charters in South Orange-Maplewood.
Osborne then asked Jessica de Koninck, the school district's in-house counsel, to comment on the applications. De Koninck felt that the application for the Rita Owens School — a paperless, technology-centered middle school that would be located in Irvington — was a "non-starter" as there was no specific physical location identified and that its expenses were projected to exceed revenues.
Regarding Hua Mei Charter School — a K-2 Mandarin immersion school that would be located at the former St. Joseph's School in Maplewood (with plans to expand to K-5) — de Koninck noted that the petitions attached to the application did not have the name of the charter on them — she felt that signators could have been signing for any or all proposed Mandarin immersion charters. However, this could be easily remedied by checking against other applications. Also, she said that South Orange-Maplewood students already scored above the targets given by the Hua Mei school in its application.
Finally, de Koninck said that it should be noted that South Orange-Maplewood School District would be responsible for covering the transportation costs for students in the district living more than 2 miles from the charter schools.
Board of Education member Lynne Crawford wanted to know what oversight of the charters was provided by the state. De Koninck, who formerly worked at the State Dept. of Education, said that there was a great deal of financial oversight, but she did not know of instructional oversight.
Board member Mark Gleason pointed out that students at charters do take the same standardized tests as in-district students.
Board member Jennifer Payne-Parrish felt that many in the community were not educated about charter schools. She asked that the Board organize another forum on charters — much like the one held in Millburn on May 9. Board President Beth Daugherty said that time was running out, as the district's recommendation to Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf was due on May 31, but that she would confer with the PTA Presidents' Council which had taken the lead on the issue.
Board member David Giles was particularly disturbed by the fact that the charters "do not take children with special needs who are educated at a higher cost. The charters take a disproportionate share of funding." Giles worried that "we are going to be faced with costs in years to come. Our choice will be to develop a Mandarin program or meet other critical needs." Giles felt that the approval of a charter would result in additional cuts to programming.
All but one of the nine Board of Education members agreed with his recommendation.
Mark Gleason did not vote for the resolution recommending against the charter because, in part, "we don't know where our public stands. I would agree that the law was not intended for districts like ours," however, he was "uncomfortable supporting this resolution." Gleason felt that the arguments against the charters were largely financial but that that was not the right argument. Gleason said he was supportive of the idea of school choice over all and felt competition could be beneficial to the district.
Osborne agreed that "choice is good," but he told Gleason he felt the state charter law did not create a "level playing field."
"What would I need to bring to you to bring this program into the distsrict?" asked Osborne. He added that the district does not have the option to "cap our classes" and "we have children signed up for school by social workers not parents — there's a level of parent advocacy" that is missing on the district level.
Andrea Wren-Hardin had the last word. "I support both [resolutions]. Choice within the system is good. But a strong public school system should be just that. It has to be a system."