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The Boston Globe

Metro

Gloucester charter school to close doors at year’s end

MALDEN — The troubled Gloucester Community Arts Charter School will voluntarily shut down in June, under a last-minute deal ­approved by a state board Tuesday that should bring to an end one of the most divisive and politically charged charter school openings in the state’s history.

The charter school’s willingness to surrender its state operating ­license, after four years of fighting for survival, came as a surprise to many attendees at a meeting of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, where many were expecting to see another ­intense showdown on whether the school should remain open.

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Most recently, the charter school has suffered from low test scores, poor finances, and underenrollment, and its opening in 2010 had long been opposed by many city leaders and parents in Gloucester.

“Gloucester now enters a new era in its education life,” state Senator Bruce Tarr, a Gloucester ­Republican who has long criticized the state for allowing the charter school to open, said in testimony to the board.

“I hope we all think long and hard about how we will make Gloucester whole and make this transition work for everyone and make Gloucester schools as strong as they can be,” Tarr said.

Gloucester Community Arts had originally planned to fight Education Commissioner Mitchell ­Chester’s recommendation earlier this month to have the state board revoke its operating ­license because of low test scores and weak finances. The charter school had convinced hundreds of parents and other supporters to sign a petition to keep the school open.

But on Monday night, the trustees at the charter school met and determined that cash flow was so poor that they questioned whether they could stay open for the rest of this school year.

‘Without a doubt, we had a rough two years, but we were making improvements.’

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Under the deal, the trustees voted to voluntarily give up its charter in June. In exchange, the state agreed to send state aid to the school on a monthly basis, instead of a quarterly ­basis, so students can finish the school year there.

The agreement avoids several months of an emotional roller coaster that often envelops state proceedings to shut down a charter school.

“It was a tough decision to make,” James Caviston, chairman of the trustees, said in an interview, characterizing it as in the best interest of students.

Nevertheless, Caviston said the board wished the school could remain open for many years to come.

“Without a doubt, we had a rough two years, but we were making improvements,” he said.

The charter school’s end came quietly at Tuesday’s state board meeting. Without any public discussion, members unanimously approved the deal, which retains the state’s right to revoke the charter if something goes awry.

Only two members of the public testified: Tarr and Peter Dolan, a Gloucester parent who is a longtime critic of the ­charter school.

Dolan said the reasons to close were clear, and he characterized the turmoil over the past few years as unfortunate.

Controversy enmeshed the Gloucester Community Arts long before it opened.

City and school leaders aggres­sively opposed the charter school because they worried about the possibility of losing millions of dollars in per-
student state aid, which would be redirected to the charter school to cover the cost of educating students there.

The inspector general’s ­office eventually found that the state board approved the charter in error because of political meddling by a Patrick administration official, an assertion that top education officials have strongly denied.

Days before the board took its vote in February 2009, state Education Secretary Paul ­Reville, worried that the state’s charter specialists found all charter school applications that year fell short of the criteria for approval, urged Chester in an ­e-mail to recommend one of them for board approval.

Otherwise, Reville wrote, he worried that charter school supporters would not back Governor Patrick’s education agenda. Chester has said the e-mail had no influence on his decision to recommend the charter school in Gloucester.

Richard Safier, superintendent of the Gloucester public schools, said that officials are working on providing charter school students with a smooth transition to the city’s schools next fall. He said he hopes that all of them choose to enroll.

“We want to get onto the business of educating all of Gloucester’s children,” Safier said.

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com.

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