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Gloucester

Starkly different views on charter school’s demise

The school began classes three weeks late because of construction delays, and the attorney general said it broke state law by not using an open bidding process for the project.

John Blanding/Globe Staff /File 2010

The school began classes three weeks late because of construction delays, and the attorney general said it broke state law by not using an open bidding process for the project.

Two starkly different views are emerging from proponents and critics of a Gloucester charter school set to close at the end of the school year.

Supporters of the Gloucester ­Community Arts Charter School say it has been providing a good-quality education and working hard to overcome management missteps, while critics say that school trustees failed in their financial oversight and that the school never developed the curriculum it promised.

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Trustees of the school voted last week to voluntarily give up its charter in exchange for financial help from the state that will allow its students to complete the school year. According to a report filed by the state Board of ­Elementary and Secondary Education, 123 students were enrolled in ­October.

Gordon Baird, a school trustee, said a small group of vocal and politically connected critics has waged a smear campaign that began before the school opened in 2010. 

“When I look back, I think that we were never going to win,” he said. “I think they were always determined to kill us.”

Peter Dolan, lead plaintiff in a parents’ suit contending that the state broke the law when it granted the school’s charter, disagreed.

“Honestly, the suggestion that this school failed because of its critics is ridiculous,” Dolan said. “I think people are trying to avoid talking about their role in the school’s failure by pointing to people who were simply trying to document the school’s problems.”

In a Dec. 7 memo to the charter school’s board, Education Commissioner Mitchell D. ­Chester recommended revocation of the school’s charter, citing “poor academic results, a lack of fidelity to its charter, high rates of staff turnover, low enrollment, a weak academic program, and fiscal instability.”

The school was surrounded by controversy from the time it was proposed in 2008. The city’s legislators, mayor, City Council, and School Committee opposed its charter application, in part because of concerns the school would eventually take $2.4 million to support it, more than a third of Gloucester’s state education aid.

The state’s charter school ­office recommended against the charter, but Chester supported it, and the Board of ­Elementary and Secondary ­Education voted 6 to 5 on Feb. 24, 2009, in favor of allowing the charter school to open. 

In September 2009, the Gloucester Times  obtained a Feb. 5, 2009, e-mail from Secretary of ­Education Paul ­Reville asking Chester to support the application to further Governor Deval ­Patrick’s education agenda.

In early 2010, the state ­inspector general found that Chester had violated state law by overriding the charter school office’s recommendation. ­Chester could not be reached for comment for this report.

That July, Dolan and other parents asked a judge to block the school’s opening. The judge let the school proceed, but it ­began classes three weeks late because of construction delays, and the attorney general found it had broken the law by not using an open bidding process for construction and to ­acquire modular classrooms.

Because of the delay, Chester tried to block the opening, and the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education put the school on probation for three months.

Peter Van Ness, a cofounder of the school and a former trustee, said that those events were distractions that made it difficult to focus on educating Gloucester’s children. Like Baird, he thinks the school’s critics brought it down.

“It’s this very small elite ­minority with lots of power that were able to kill it,” he said.

James Caviston, chairman of the school’s board of trustees, said that its staff worked to overcome obstacles, but that it came down to money.

He said the school struggled to increase enrollment, which determines its level of state ­financial support, but was ­unable to reach its goals. When Chester recommended charter revocation, it lost more students, and its bank cut off its line of credit, Caviston said, making survival impossible.

He said the deal with the state should allow the school to stay open until June, which is in the best interests of students, families, and staff.

“The last thing you want is a situation where it shuts down right away,” said Caviston, who asserted that enrollment suffered because critics manipulated public opinion.

“The one thing that probably wasn’t done properly was to counter­campaign early on,” he said. “There was so much ­antagonism, so much fear put into people.”

Jason Grow, a former city councilor, said he regularly ­attended meetings of the school’s board of trustees and was concerned that important issues, particularly budget issues, were rarely discussed.

Grow was vocal about those concerns, but he said his criticism would not have hurt the school if it had fulfilled its founders’ goals.

“The idea that two or three or four people could bring it down,” he said, “is an indication that it wasn’t built on any foundation to begin with.”

Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.
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