As the trustees of Mystic Valley Regional Charter School in Malden seek a review of the state education commissioner’s decision to deny the school’s request to increase its enrollment cap, written complaints filed with the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education since 2001 reveal that parents have repeatedly voiced concern about the way trustees run the school.
Mystic Valley’s trustees are expected to make their case to add 400 students during a Board of Elementary and Secondary Education meeting on May 21.
Such a review “is not an evidentiary hearing,” according to Jonathan Considine, spokesman for the agency. “The school will have an opportunity to submit materials and make a short argument before the board.”
The Globe reviewed correspondence submitted to state education officials by letter and e-mail from 2002 to 2012; inquiries made by telephone were not included. In all, the files totaled 338 pages.
The notes touch on a range of topics, from requests for information on the school’s finances and transportation policies to concerns raised by state Representative Patricia A. Haddad of Somerset, former House chairwoman of the Joint Committee on Education, about Mystic Valley “buying up property.” Parents also called into question the school’s method for awarding scholarship funds, its treatment of students with special needs, and the board’s oversight of the school.
Some of the complaints are anonymous. Several were sent by “UnOfficial MVRCS,” which describes itself as a group of parents whose children are enrolled at Mystic Valley. The group, which maintains a blog critical of the public charter school, says it uses a fictitious name and e-mail address “out of fear of repercussions to our children on the part of the board of trustees and administration.”
An Oct. 16, 2010, e-mail from the group focused on concerns about the board of trustees’ refusal to set term limits for its members and failure to comply with the state’s Open Meeting Law, which requires governmental bodies, when discussing the public’s business, to give advance notice of meetings, hold its meetings in open session, and keep minutes of the meetings and make them public.
“The board has taken total control of the day-to-day management of the school, so much so that [former school director Joseph] McCleary has little say and is just a name on a door,” the e-mail said. “It is very upsetting.”
Mystic Valley’s board chairman, Neil C. Kinnon, who also serves as a Malden city councilor, said the complaints were given undue weight by Mitchell D. Chester, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. “There were almost no legal, written complaints about the school in the last five years,” Kinnon wrote in an e-mail to the Globe. “Only 15 total correspondences, most for information only.”
In February, citing a “clear record of insularity and opaque decision-making,” Chester placed numerous conditions on Mystic Valley’s charter and denied a request to increase its student enrollment by 400 seats, to 1,900 students.
The school, Chester wrote in a Feb. 8 memo to the state education board, “has not consistently operated with transparency or been accessible to all stakeholders.” He noted that each of the five trustees has served on the board for 12 years or more and is involved with the day-to-day management of the school, a practice that runs counter to state guidelines.
Over the years, state education officials have repeatedly found that Mystic Valley’s board of trustees may have discussed matters in executive session that do not fall within the allowable purposes outlined in the Open Meeting Law, according to a report that was submitted in February by Class Measures, an education consulting firm based in Woburn.
Parents said it was “difficult to communicate with the board,” according to the report. That sentiment was echoed in the complaints reviewed by the Globe.
Lauren Greene, a spokeswoman for the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, acknowledged that “complaints about and concerns regarding Mystic Valley were a factor in imposing conditions on the school’s charter.”
Kinnon called the conditions “discriminatory and arbitrary and capricious.” Though the school’s five-member board of trustees will pursue a review of the school’s increased enrollment request, no similar right to a review exists with regard to the commissioner’s decision to impose conditions.
If the school’s request to expand enrollment is reconsidered and approved by a board vote, the enrollment expansion would not go into effect until the 2014-2015 school year, according to Greene.
In the meantime, it is not known whether the school’s trustees have taken steps to meet the conditions imposed by Chester. In an effort “to iron out” the conditions, Kinnon said, which call for Mystic Valley’s board to expand its membership and set term limits for its members, the school’s trustees met with the commissioner on April 17. Kinnon characterized the meeting as “productive.”
Under the conditions imposed by Chester, the board of trustees has until May 31 to engage in a comprehensive self-evaluation and recruit additional members who have expertise that is needed; amend its bylaws to include specific, reasonable limits on successive or total terms that a trustee may serve; and apply the limits to all current trustees, each of whom has served on the board for at least 12 years.
The Mystic Valley board must expand to at least seven members by July 31; and by Sept. 30, board members must engage in training, conducted by an external consultant approved in advance by state officials, on the roles and responsibilities of a public charter school board of trustees.
Asked whether the board has outlined a plan to expand its membership and set term limits for its members, Kinnon said, “The board has not come to any conclusion at this point; we have to assess everything now.”
When pressed to detail the trustees’ plans going forward, Kinnon said, “I cannot discuss any more at this time, as it is important to discuss the course of action with the board and our legal advisers.”