Once a shining star in the Boston charter school world, City on a Hill is facing a massive financial crisis, prompting trustees on Monday to enact a series of dramatic budget cuts: They will soon lay off 23 teachers, administrators, and other staffers at their New Bedford school and two Roxbury schools and will close the New Bedford campus in June.
The plan, announced after a trustees meeting Monday morning, immediately sparked outrage. In Roxbury, parents of one school quickly began to organize in opposition to one aspect of the budget cuts: merging their school, located on Circuit Street, with another in Dudley Square as soon as January.
The big concerns for the parents: crime, public drinking, and drug use in the Dudley Square neighborhood and a failure of school officials to consult parents. Families were at the school Friday night for a Thanksgiving potluck, and school officials never mentioned the budget cuts or the Monday board meeting, parents said.
“It totally floored me,” said Dalles Smith, whose son attends the Circuit Street school. “I don’t want my son to have any part of Dudley Square.”
The sweeping budget cuts represent the latest turbulent turn for the nearly 25-year-old charter school, which has been struggling with leadership turnover, lackluster academic performance, and financial woes. Earlier this year, state officials placed the New Bedford campus on probation, and a year earlier teachers at all three sites unionized, a rarity for independent charter schools, which place a premium on operational autonomy.
The severity of this fall’s financial crisis emerged after head counts at the three campuses revealed enrollment had dropped for a second year in a row. That, in turn, will lead to a loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars in per-student aid from the state and federal governments. The three campuses operate as independent schools overseen by a single board of trustees and an executive team.
“This is a really difficult decision, and we don’t take it lightly,” said Cara Stillings-Candal, chair of the trustees in an interview after the board meeting. “We wouldn’t have made these decisions if it wasn’t in the best interest of families and students.”
Just 570 students are currently enrolled in grades 9 through 12 across City on a Hill’s three campuses, leaving 270 seats empty. The Boston campuses receive about $20,000 per student in state aid and the New Bedford site gets about $15,000 per student. Last year’s enrollment drop resulted in an $842,000 loss in state and federal aid.
The consolidation of the Boston schools would allow for fewer administrators and teachers. Currently, each building operates as a separate high school, resulting in smaller than ideal class sizes, school officials said. Under the consolidation, all ninth- and 10th-graders will attend classes at the Circuit Street location and all 11th- and 12th-graders will go to Dudley Square.
Some parents are worried the larger class sizes could cause their children to flounder, while teachers, who are represented by the Boston Teachers Union, hoped layoffs will be minimal.
“At this point, we have many concerns about the current plans,” Sam Hughes, a dean at the Dudley Square school and a member of the bargaining committee, said in a statement. “Teachers and staff are eager to work with the trustees to mitigate the negative impact the planned cuts will have — and to discuss with them how to bring much-needed stability to our schools and for our students’ education moving forward.”
The consolidation will require state approval since each campus is governed by their own operating license granted by the state education board.
School officials defended the plan.
“Our priorities are, first and foremost, student academic outcomes and preserving as many teaching positions as possible,” said Kevin Taylor, the school’s chief executive, in a statement. “As such, we will prioritize eliminating non-teaching and other administrative roles.”
In announcing the budget cuts, City on a Hill officials indicated that the problems in New Bedford were so severe that it was likely they would fail to turn the school around. The latest MCAS scores, released in September, were among the lowest in the state and worse than those for the New Bedford school system: Just 16 percent of 10th-graders met or exceeded expectations in English exams and only 14 percent did in math.
“As a Board, we believe that relinquishing the charter now, rather than awaiting likely closure by [the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education] later in the year, is the only viable and responsible next step,” Stillings-Candal said in a statement.
New Bedford Superintendent Thomas Anderson said he will work with City on a Hill to make sure students have a smooth transition into the school system.
“We are willing to do what is necessary to assist in this situation,” Anderson said in a statement. “New Bedford Public Schools always was and continues to be the best education option for these students.”
City on a Hill’s closure will bring a financial benefit to the city of New Bedford. After this school year, it no longer will have to give up hundreds of thousands of dollars in state education aid to cover tuition costs. In a statement, Mayor Jon Mitchell of New Bedford said he was pleased that financial obligation would end.
“I am grateful that [Education] Commissioner [Jeffrey] Riley has moved to end the operations of a school whose record of low achievement and high attrition was exactly what many of us predicted when it was first proposed,” Mitchell said.
A state education spokeswoman said the commissioner had not made any formal decision regarding the New Bedford campus prior to the trustee vote Monday. The state had given the New Bedford site until December 2020 to show a significant and sustained improvement in its academic performance.
City on a Hill was among the first group of charter schools to open in Massachusetts in 1995, setting up its first campus inside a YMCA next to Northeastern University. It cultivated a knack for enrolling students who were behind academically and preparing them so they could be successful in college. State education officials deemed the school a “proven-provider” earlier this decade, paving its way to open a second school in Boston in 2013 and another in New Bedford in 2014.
State education officials this year designated the Circuit Street school as requiring assistance and intervention due to a low high school graduation rate — 54 percent in 2018 according to the most recent state data. MCAS scores, released in September, were also well below the state and Boston school district averages, with 26 percent of students meeting or exceeding expectations in English and 24 percent in math.
The Dudley Square location had even lower MCAS scores: 16 percent of students met or exceeded expectations in English and 20 percent did in math. But it had a higher graduation rate, 70 percent.
Paul Reville, a former state education secretary, said City on a Hill’s problems with its expansion highlights the need for state officials to more closely scrutinize charter schools that want to expand.
“Scaling up any organization is a challenge,” said Reville, who called City on a Hill’s results disappointing.