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Malden

School, state officials keep on sparring

Mystic Valley Charter has yet to expand its board

The new school year has brought many changes to Mystic Valley Regional Charter School in Malden, but the change many parents had been anticipating — expansion of the school’s board of trustees — hasn’t happened, despite a July 31 deadline set by the state Department of Education.

The latest missed deadline is just one in a series of lapses since the state imposed conditions on the school’s charter, according to state education officials.

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Mystic Valley board chairman Neil C. Kinnon said the state is to blame for the lack of progress.

In February, state Education Commissioner Mitchell D. Chester, citing a “clear record of insularity and opaque decision-making,” denied the school’s request to increase its enrollment by 400 seats, to 1,900 students.

Mystic Valley’s board of trustees was ordered to submit meeting minutes and agendas to state education officials prior to each board meeting, and was given until May 31 to engage in a comprehensive self-evaluation and recruit additional members who have the needed expertise; amend its bylaws to include specific limits on successive or total terms that a trustee may serve; and apply the limits to all current trustees, three of whom have served on the board since the school was founded in 1998.

The school’s five-member board also was ordered to expand to at least seven members by July 31; and, by Sept. 30, engage in training, conducted by an external consultant approved in advance by state education officials, on the roles and responsibilities of a public charter school board of trustees.

State records show that school officials have complied with the demand for the board’s meeting materials, and submitted the self-evaluation on May 31. But the board has yet to recruit any new trustees or expand its membership. According to state education officials, the school also failed to meet the May 31 deadline for amending its bylaws.

‘We expect the school to move ahead and meet all of the conditions imposed on its charter . . . ’

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But Kinnon said the trustees drafted new bylaws and submitted them to state officials in May, after which Mystic Valley board treasurer Tom Brennan “called three times in May and June to get a meeting with the commissioner.”

The meeting did not take place until Aug. 29. At that meeting, state officials “claimed they did not have the draft bylaws,” Kinnon said in an e-mail to the Globe, so Brennan hand-delivered a copy of the proposed bylaws the next day.

“A phone call back anytime in May or June would have resolved that,” Kinnon said.

Kinnon, who also serves as a Malden city councilor, said the trustees’ hands are tied until state education officials approve the proposed bylaws, which are now under review.

The bylaws proposed by Mystic Valley’s board of trustees — obtained by the Globe from state education officials and stamped received on Aug. 30 — call for the school’s board to have seven members, four of whom would serve renewable five-year terms; the remaining three would serve terms of one, two, or three years to ensure their stays do not all expire in the same year.

Of those, two trustees would be able to serve two consecutive terms of office, but must remain off the board for at least one year before participating as a trustee again. The third trustee in that group would be an alumni of the school, elected to a one-year term.

Under the proposed bylaws, “each trustee shall serve until a successor has been elected and qualified” and “a vote of five members is required to be elected.”

Under the school’s current bylaws, the board must consist of no fewer than five trustees and not more than 11, with trustees elected by a majority vote of the board and serving three-year, renewable terms.

“Until we have new approved bylaws, we are legally bound to follow our old bylaws,” Kinnon said. “Our old bylaws only allow for new board members to be put on the board at the annual meeting, which is at the end of June. Given we did not have new bylaws approved, we could not possibly put on new board members as nobody knows what the terms would be, etc.

“When we have new approved bylaws, we will let the [state] know who we are intending on using to train us,” Kinnon said in his e-mail. “Of course, trainers do not want to train us until they have the bylaws we are supposed to live under and also criteria that the [state education officials] are obligated to follow when evaluating a school.

“The latter piece is a challenge as the criteria they evaluated Mystic Valley on in this last renewal phase were unique to Mystic Valley and not what the criteria published and used on all other schools were. This is troubling to people who would like to potentially ‘train’ us.”

State officials take issue with Kinnon’s assessment of the situation.

“We expect the school to move ahead and meet all of the conditions imposed on its charter, irrespective of the order of the conditions imposed,” said Lauren Greene, a spokeswoman for the state education department. “Each condition has a deadline and none of the conditions are dependent upon fulfilling another condition.”

Meanwhile, discussions between the school and state officials continue.

“There are still some areas of disagreement, most notably concerning term limits for trustees, that remain to be resolved,” said Greene in an e-mail. “At some point, we will report back to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, which is the charter authorizing body in Massachusetts, but we have not yet set a date for that.”

Failure to meet the conditions may result in the state board placing Mystic Valley on probation, revoking its charter, or imposing additional conditions, according to Chester’s Feb. 15 letter to the school.

The school was granted its original charter in 1998 and today is one of the largest charter schools in the state, serving 1,497 students in kindergarten to grade 12 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 2,383 students on the school’s waiting list for kindergarten through grade 5, state Department of Education records show.

Despite the school’s high rankings, parents have repeatedly voiced concerns about the manner in which the trustees run the school, from complaints about Mystic Valley’s transportation policies and the board’s oversight of the school to questions regarding Mystic Valley’s real estate holdings, its method for awarding scholarship funds, and its treatment of students with special needs.

Kinnon said the complaints — many of which were anonymous — were given undue weight by Chester as he considered the most recent charter renewal application. Under state regulations, charter schools must apply for renewal every five years. Mystic Valley’s charter had been renewed without conditions on Oct. 30, 2007.

“We did contemplate taking the legal route to have the conditions thrown out, as we believe we were treated arbitrarily and capriciously,” Kinnon said, noting that the trustees still believe the commissioner has no authority to unilaterally impose term limits on charter schools. “However, it is always less expensive to come to a mutual agreement, and we are doing our best to try to do that. If that fails, we will determine next steps at that point.”

The denial in February of the school’s request to increase its enrollment cap marked the second time in as many years that Mystic Valley had unsuccessfully applied for permission to expand. The school appealed in May, but the state education board refused to back away from Chester’s decision.

“The evidence is overwhelming that the commissioner is knowingly penalizing many families in a process that has been corrupted by politics and lies,” Kinnon said.

“One need look no further than the fact that the Pioneer School of Science in Everett, which was ill-prepared to open another school at this time, was awarded another school of 350 students; and yet Mystic Valley, with better academic results, significantly more [financial stability], a wait list that is multiples of Pioneer’s, and excess space capacity, was denied a stepped process to add 400 more students over 12 years.”

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