Charter school’s layoffs raise ire

Parents decry timing of cuts tied to budget deficit

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff
Smith Leadership Academy charter school in Dorchester serves roughly 200 students in grades 6, 7, and 8.

Several parents at a Dorchester charter school are calling for the ouster of the executive director and the chairman of the school’s trustees, following a firestorm over the layoffs of the principal and five other employees.

The parents say the layoffs on Feb. 17 are jeopardizing the viability of Smith Leadership Academy charter school and the education of their children by creating an unnecessary distraction just weeks before Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System testing is to begin. The academy is under pressure to improve its MCAS scores from the state, which will consider whether to renew the academy’s operating license next year.

“We don’t want Smith Leadership Academy to close,’’ said Ayesha Moore, whose son is in the eighth grade. “We want the people who are ruining it to leave.’’


But Karmala Sherwood, the academy’s executive director, said the school had to lay off the employees, mostly administrators, to remedy an unexpected budget shortfall of more than $100,000. Fewer students enrolled than anticipated, cutting into per-pupil aid, which averages about $10,000 per student.

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Sherwood said the school, which serves roughly 200 students in grades 6, 7, and 8, is not at risk of closing.

“We are sad and upset that we had to do a layoff,’’ she said. “We are very administrative-heavy . . . and I made a decision that teachers should definitely stay in front of our children.’’

The uproar occurs as charter schools are aggressively expanding in Boston, as part of a state effort to provide students with better educational opportunities than available in their hometown school districts. Created under the 1993 Education Reform Act, charter schools are independently run public schools that are intended to be laboratories of innovation.

But the turmoil at Smith Leadership Academy shows that charter schools are not immune to the same kinds of budgetary problems and academic challenges that can afflict traditional public schools.


Students at Smith Leadership Academy, where math and science are taught in single-gender classes, often score lower than Boston public school students on the MCAS, and the state has labeled the academy for restructuring to fix persistently low scores. For instance, fewer than half the students scored proficient or higher on last spring’s MCAS exams.

In May 2011, a state review revealed a number of problems with instruction, saying that too many teachers failed to challenge students - relying too heavily on lectures and worksheets - and that the school lacks a coherent curriculum.

The review also faulted trustees for violating the state’s Open Meeting Law and lacking a firm grasp on the school’s finances, and questioned their ability to raise money. The review noted that trustees spent $30,000 on a fund-raiser that yielded $7,000 in cash and $3,000 in in-kind donations.

Shaky finances are hardly new to Smith Leadership Academy, which opened in 2003. The academy had layoffs in 2008, Sherwood said, and it ended the 2009-10 school year with a nearly $100,000 deficit, according to an independent audit.

But the review highlighted some positive efforts, such as a stronger emphasis on MCAS preparation and the fostering of leadership skills and character development in its students, a central mission of the school.


The layoffs this year have been particularly emotional. The principal, Thea Stovell, had worked at the school for several years in various positions, and the parent/student coordinator, Eleanor Chalmus, was extremely popular among parents and students.

One student launched a Facebook campaign, the “Save Ms. Chalmus Organization.’’

In response to the outpouring, Chalmus thanked her supporters on her Facebook page and reminded students to conduct themselves in a respectful manner and not to forget about their schoolwork.

“I need you all to do what is right,’’ Chalmus said.

The positions of a school improvement coach, a math/science coordinator, a humanities coordinator, and a math enrichment teacher were also cut.

Parents question whether budget problems were the only factor in the layoffs, accusing Sherwood and the chairman, Kevin Tarpley, of retaliating against some of the laid-off employees for pursuing a grievance, which must be filed with the board of trustees.

Sherwood acknowledged that some of the laid-off employees were involved in a grievance but insisted that it played no role in determining layoffs.

“The grievance wasn’t prepared according to process or protocol,’’ Sherwood said. “One of the people that filed a grievance is still working here. Two of the people laid off were not part of the proposed grievance.’’

It was unclear what the grievance was about. Tarpley, whose board handles grievances, said the board never officially received one and did not know what the issue could have been.

The former employees could not be reached for comment.

Parents said the school initially told them nothing about the layoffs, which occurred on a teacher conference day. The school subsequently held a meeting during school vacation week.

But some parents, unsatisfied with the response, have tried to raise concerns with the board of trustees, which has refused to listen to them and threatened to have a parent removed by police during a meeting for talking out of order, parents said.

“It’s been a nasty mess,’’ said Euronna Taylor, a parent. “They are trying to minimize or laugh away our concerns.’’

Tarpley declined to get into the specifics of the meeting and said the board is planning to hear parents’ concerns at its March 20 meeting. He blamed much of the controversy on misinformation.

“Parents are being misled by a group of disgruntled folks,’’ Tarpley said.

The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, which has received a number of complaints from parents about the layoffs, is planning to meet with Tarpley next week.

“It’s premature for us to know if there is anything substantive going on,’’ said JC Considine, a department spokesman.

James Vaznis can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.