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Controversy derails New Bedford charter school expansion plan

An innovative but controversial proposal to allow a New Bedford charter school to open a new campus is off the table, having hit a series of stumbling blocks in the Legislature.

“We felt that this was a compromise that put the needs of New Bedford students and families first, and I commend the city’s municipal and school officials for their work,” state Education Commissioner Jeff Riley said in a statement Friday.

“Although we have delayed the decision in order to allow time for the home rule legislation to pass, I recognize now that the compromise will not move forward on a timeline that would allow New Bedford families to plan for September. Therefore, Alma del Mar Charter School will proceed with the approved traditional expansion.”

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Riley said the plan “sought to address municipal, school district, and charter school concerns in innovative and collaborative ways” and thanked everyone involved.

The school and city officials had agreed to a deal under which the school would open a new 450-seat campus at a former city elementary school, drawing students from a new neighborhood enrollment zone.

For that plan to be executed, lawmakers needed to authorize the property transfer and creation of a neighborhood zone.

After first asking for passage of the bill by early May, Riley pushed back his deadline to the end of the month. Critics of the bill and of charter expansion used procedural moves to delay it in the House and Senate.

A motion the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education approved 9 to 2 in January allowed Alma Del Mar to expand to 594 seats and enroll students by lottery if “the necessary legislation has not been enacted in sufficient time for planning and implementation.”

The 594-seat expansion represented half of what Alma Del Mar requested and is what Riley said he would have granted under the traditional charter approval process.

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Under the plan that was shelved Friday, a memorandum of understanding agreed to by both New Bedford and Alma Del Mar would have made them eligible to apply for grants from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education “to create funding stability and predictability.”

When the deal was announced in January, Mayor Jon Mitchell said it “contemplates a fairer way to do charter schools — fairer to cities, fairer to taxpayers, and fairer to students in district schools.”

“It will level the playing field by requiring the new charter school to accept all students in its neighborhood,” he said.

Though the deal was green-lighted by municipal officials in New Bedford, including with an 8-2 City Council vote on the legislation to transfer the former Kempton School property and establish the neighborhood zone, the city’s House delegation was divided on it.

Representatives Christopher Markey and Paul Schmid, who each represent parts of the city, filed the home rule petition in the House on May 2. Representative Antonio Cabral of New Bedford has said he opposed the bill as written.

On May 23, Representative James Hawkins of Attleboro blocked referral of the bill to the Education Committee, saying the full House should have the opportunity to weigh in on a charter school issue instead of the handful of lawmakers attending that day’s informal session. Six days later, Cabral, with support from his fellow New Bedford-area Representatives Christopher Hendricks and William Straus, moved to send the bill to the committee for a hearing and review.

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“Commissioner Riley has the authority to improve upon the 594 seat proposal by including the same financial incentives provided in the abandoned model, and addressing concerns related to the 3-year roll-out,” Cabral said in a statement Friday. “My office has asked for a meeting with the commissioner to discuss, in detail, the implementation of the plan as authorized under current law. I am looking forward to a productive and substantive discussion on how to best move forward and how to treat New Bedford children and their families, and its taxpayers, fairly.”

Alma Del Mar will gradually ramp up to its full 594 seats beginning this fall, with this year’s seats filled by students on the waiting list from the lottery for the existing campus, education officials said. It will most likely open in the former Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception school building, which it had secured as a temporary site.

The Massachusetts Teachers Association, parents, and local activists last month sued in Bristol Superior Court, arguing the expansion deal violates the state Constitution, which restricts public money from going to entities that are not publicly owned and operated.

In January, MTA vice president Max Page blasted the agreement as “extortion” and said the approval amounted to telling the city to “hand over $7 million more in public school funds to Alma del Mar, and throw in a public building for free,” or risk losing more money to a larger expansion.

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Senator Patricia Jehlen used similar language after Thursday’s Senate session, in which she made a motion that automatically postponed consideration of the New Bedford bill.

She said the city “appears to have had a gun to its head.” Who’s holding the gun? “Oh, the commissioner,” she said.