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Expansion rejection is unfair, charter school says

MALDEN — The highly ranked Mystic Valley Regional Charter School in Malden is vigorously objecting to the denial of its request to expand by 400 students, contending that it has been singled out by the state for issues that are ignored at other charter schools.

In a 27-page document submitted to the Massachusetts Board of ­Elementary and Secondary Education Friday, Mystic Valley contends that state Education Commissioner Mitchell D. Chester’s decision to block the expansion was “arbitrary, capricious, and discriminatory.”

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The school is scheduled to present its case to the state education board Tuesday.

Jonathan Considine, a spokesman for the Department of ­Elementary and Secondary Education, has said the school will have an opportunity to submit materials and make a short argument Tuesday. But he cautioned that the board’s meeting “is not an evidentiary hearing.”

In February, citing a “clear ­record of insularity and opaque decision making,” including ­alleged violations of the state’s Open Meeting Law, Chester ­denied Mystic Valley’s request to expand enrollment from 1,500 to 1,900 students. Chester also placed several conditions on the school’s charter.

Those conditions require ­Mystic Valley’s board of trustees to expand its membership and set term limits for its members; each of its five current members have served at least a decade. Failure to meet the conditions could result in additional conditions, probation, or revocation of the school’s charter.

The commissioner’s decision was handed down a month after Mystic Valley reached an agreement with the city of Malden to buy the Emerson School, a former public elementary school at 230 Highland Ave., for $1.3 million.

The charter school plans to begin using the building, its seventh property in Malden, as an extension of its high school this fall.

Mystic Valley’s existing high school can accommodate about 350 students; the Emerson School would make room for another 250, said Mystic Valley’s board chairman, Neil C. Kinnon, who ­also serves as a Malden city councilor.

Even if the state does not ­approve an increase in overall enroll­ment cap, Mystic Valley ­expects the high school to grow to as many as 450 students, based on current enrollments in the lower grades. Currently, the school has 368 students in grades 9 to 12.

“Therein lies our dilemma,” Kinnon said. “If we do not get [an] expansion, we will forever be under­sized and therefore waste money on operations per student.”

Mystic Valley opened in September 1998 as a kindergarten-to-grade-12 school with a maximum enrollment of 1,176 students. It has twice received approval to ­expand, most recently in 2009, and today is one of the largest charter schools in the state, serving 1,497 students from Everett, Malden, Medford, Melrose, Stoneham, and Wakefield.

In recent years, Mystic Valley has been ranked among the top 10 schools in the state by Newsweek, US News & World Report, and The Washington Post. There are more than 2,500 students on the school’s waiting list.

“If you’re going to let any charter school increase its enrollment cap, it should be this one,” said Mystic Valley board member Fran Brown. “We have demonstrated an ability to educate students the way they should be.”

There is no formal review process for the conditions the state imposed on Mystic Valley’s charter, but the school also is asking the state education board to ­review the conditions anyway.

“Because the decision to deny Mystic Valley’s amendment request was tied to the governance issues outlined in their conditions, the board has the discretion to ­include those issues in their discussion,” said Lauren Greene, a spokeswoman for the state education board.

Mystic Valley says the board should renew the school’s charter without conditions and approve its charter amendment request because Chester failed to use “specific, objective criteria, evenly ­applied” and gave weight to anonymous complaints about the school.

In recent years, parents using a fictitious name and e-mail address have complained to state education officials about Mystic Valley’s board, criticizing the trustees for refusing to set term limits, for the way they govern the school, and for failing to comply with Open Meeting Law requirements.

In its document, the school ­argues that “any conditions arising out of perceived violations [of the Open Meeting Law are] unfair and unsupported,” and notes that charter schools in Boston, ­Chelsea, Foxborough, and Lawrence have had their charters renewed without conditions despite “undisputed and serious Open Meeting Law compliance issues.”

“Should these issues rise to the level that conditions are imposed when they haven’t for other charter schools? We don’t think so,” said Kinnon. “So what’s really going on here? We think it’s personal. They have singled us out ­because when they say ‘you must do,’ we push back.”

Mystic Valley is also questioning Chester’s objection to the long tenure of its trustees, noting that the school’s original charter, ­approved in February 1998, stated that such limits would not be considered until and unless the school has passed through its formative period of growth.

“Ironically, the commissioner’s refusal to increase the cap is frustrating that growth,” the school states in its document, citing five charter schools that have trustees who have served at least 10 years.

If Mystic Valley’s request to ­expand enrollment is approved by a board vote, the enrollment expan­sion would not go into effect until the 2014-15 school year.

Brenda J. Buote may be reached at brenda.buote@gmail.com.
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