Keith Bedford/Globe Staff/File 2017
For nearly two decades, Conservatory Lab Charter School has operated completely independent from the Boston school system. The freedom has enabled the school to develop a curriculum infused with music, hands-on projects, and rich storytelling.
On any given day, the sounds of violins, clarinets, trombones, and other instruments reverberate throughout the halls of the Dorchester school that educates 450 students in preschool through Grade 8.
But now Conservatory Lab is pondering the unthinkable for many charter schools: It is looking to forfeit some freedom to join the Boston school system, where its large bureaucracy and union contracts are deemed by some education advocates to be barriers to innovation.
Never before has an independent charter school in Massachusetts joined its local school system.
The potential move comes at a precarious time for the charter school movement, which is still reeling 15 months after voters overwhelmingly rejected a ballot question that would have accelerated charter school expansion statewide. That campaign left charter schools with a bruised reputation.
Gary Gut, chairman of Conservatory Lab’s board of trustees, said the potential move should not be perceived as a rebuke of independent charter schools, noting the flexibility allowed the school to flourish. But he added that Conservatory Lab believes joining the Boston school system is probably the best way to bring the school to the next level.
“Today, there is a lot of innovation in the district,” Gut said.
Conservatory Lab wants to create stronger partnerships with the school system’s Boston Arts Academy and other schools as well as tapping into the system’s immense resources. Conservatory Lab needs a school building and better pay for its teachers to remedy high turnover.
“We hope and believe we will be able to recruit and retain a diverse pool of teachers who will be at the school long enough to bring the program from a high level to an even higher level,” Gut said.
Under the proposal, Conservatory Lab would shift from an independent charter school to an in-district charter school, a move that would automatically make its teachers part of the Boston Teachers Union. That would provide Conservatory Lab’s approximately 70 staffers access to the union’s more generous contractual pay scale.
The move, at minimum, would require approval from the Boston School Committee and the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. Conservatory Lab is hoping to have everything all set for the 2019-20 school year.
The proposal, though, faces an uncertain future with the school system. Initially, the school system released a statement late Friday afternoon saying it looked forward to discussing the proposal with the School Committee, the state, and the charter school. But the school system reversed its position, issuing a new statement around 10 p.m.
“At the present time, the Boston Public Schools is not prepared to move forward with a proposal by the Conservatory Lab to become part of the Boston Public Schools system,” the statement said. “Our analysis shows that moving ahead with the proposal on the timeline the charter school has requested could cause BPS to incur a significant financial burden, and it’s important that the district focus on using its resources to support existing BPS schools.”
A portion of the analysis provided to the Globe said a big stumbling block was over facilities. The school system, which is developing a long term master plan, was unsure if it could provide a building. The analysis indicated the school system is still vetting the proposal.
Gut, in a statement Saturday, remained optimistic.
“We continue to believe that a transition to an [in-district charter school] would be beneficial to both Conservatory Lab and the district overall and look forward to maintaining an open dialogue with BPS around these issues,” Gut said. “At the same time, we remain proud of our many accomplishments as a school community as [an independent] charter and are confident that the positive work of the school will continue.”
Many questions surround the proposal at the state level. Independent charter schools and in-district charter schools operate under different state licenses that have some variation in rules, such as those governing unions.
One big question: If Conservatory Labs secures a license as an in-district charter school, will it be deemed a brand new school under state law? That classification could potentially require a new lottery for student enrollment, and Conservatory Lab wants to keep all its current students.
“We’re still in discussions with Conservatory Lab about exactly what they are seeking and what our statutes and regulations would allow,” said Jacqueline Reis, state education spokeswoman.
Other independent charter schools in Boston are closely watching the process. If Conservatory Lab joins the school system, that could benefit other independent charters interested in expanding.
Currently, Boston is at a state-imposed cap on the number of students who can attend independent charters, but Conservatory Lab’s 450 students would no longer count against that cap.
That, in turn, would create room for other independents to expand or for a new one to open.
The Massachusetts Charter Public School Association said it believes the charter school movement remains strong.
“In Boston, charter public schools have provided high-quality educational options for families and professional opportunities for teachers for more than 20 years,” said Tim Nicolette, the association’s executive director, in a statement. “It is the prerogative of Conservatory Lab’s board of trustees to pursue this conversion, if it believes a different model will allow the school to continue to support its teachers, students, and families.”
Meanwhile, Conservatory Lab is pursuing contingency plans, particularly those surrounding facilities. Its program is split among two locations: Lower grades are in a building it owns, while upper grades are in leased space at Carney Hospital.
The school is seeking city approval to build a $25 million building for its upper grades in Dorchester. Gut said Conservatory Lab would drop the project if it joins the school system.
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