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State backs block on charter school’s expansion

Mystic Valley threatens lawsuit

FRANKLIN — State education officials refused Tuesday to back away from their decision to block a planned expansion of the highly ranked Mystic Valley Regional Charter School in Malden, prompting school officials to threaten a lawsuit.

The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, meeting at a school here, took no action on Education Commissioner Mitchell D. Chester’s decision to impose conditions on the school’s charter renewal, effectively stalling any decision on expanding its student population.

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In February, Chester, citing a “clear ­record of insularity and opaque decision-making,” ­denied Mystic Valley’s request to expand enrollment from 1,500 to 1,900 students. He also placed several conditions on the school’s charter, including a requirement that Mystic Valley expand its board of membership and set term limits for members.

On Tuesday, after a contentious back and forth between school representatives and state officials, Mystic trustees chairman Neil C. Kinnon called the board’s decision not to overturn Chester’s decision a “mini-IRS scandal” and said his board will not arbitrarily impose term limits and add members because the state says it has to.

“We are going to follow our own plan about how we are going to replace our board,” he said. “There is no question that there is some level of targeting going on here.”

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Mystic Valley school Superintendent Martin L. Trice said it needs to slowly expand enrollment over the next 12 years to maximize academic and after-school programs.

Mystic Valley representatives said they will go to court to fight the state’s decision. Attorney John D. Hanify, who represents the school, said the decision has raised serious questions about the state’s authority.

“This is a school that passes with flying colors,” he said, speaking of the school’s academic performance. “It is inappropriate and unlawful to impose conditions on its charter renewal.”

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

But Jeff Wulfson, deputy education commissioner, said the state is simply representing the public in this case. “Public schools have elected boards, so there is a level of accountability,” he said. “There is nothing like that in charter school boards, so we have to act on the public’s behalf.”

Wulfson said complaints from parents and teachers about the school “have clearly gone beyond what we’ve seen at other charter schools.”

Those complaints, many from anonymous sources who say they fear retribution from the board, range from a lack of adherence to the state’s Open Meeting Law to a failure of the board to address concerns about transportation, admissions, and other issues.

“The board’s role is not only to be academically successful, but to act as a public body, with transparency and a responsibility to the public,” Wulfson said. “We feel they have fallen short on this too often.”

The conditions, such as new board members, are not extreme, Wulfson said. Three of the board members have been trustees since the school was founded in 1998, he said.

“This is not probation; this is just conditions,” Wulfson said. “I don’t understand the level of pushback on these conditions, which are not very onerous. Most people would say they are perfectly reasonable.”

Mystic Valley trustees have complied with two conditions to submit meeting agendas and minutes to state education officials and did not indicate any issue with providing the state with quarterly or monthly financial statements.

But Kinnon said trustees have plans to let Mystic alumni succeed the current board. The first graduating class left Mystic Valley in 2007, he said, meaning the first group of alumni should be ready to serve in a couple of years. Kinnon also scoffed at the suggestion the board is not accessible or accountable to the school community. He said most board members have children in the school, and they attend “hundreds, if not thousands” of events at the school each year where parents are free to ­approach them with concerns.

Wulfson said the state theoretically has the authority to revoke the school’s charter. “We haven’t done that, and we’re not likely to,” he said. “Clearly this school’s academic performance outweighs our concerns.

“But we can certainly take their lack of compliance into account when they come and ask us for new seats,” he said.

After the state education board’s decision not to intervene, Chester offered to work with Mystic Valley trustees.

“We have offered to work with you; we have offered to meet with you and find a path for moving forward,” he said.

Ellen Ishkanian can be reached at eishkanian@gmail.com.
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