RED BANK: GROUPS SEEK FEDS PROBE OF CHARTER SCHOOL FOR STUDENT ‘SEGREGATION’

rbcs graduation 061516 1Charter school Superintendent Meredith Pennotti speaking at the school’s eighth-grade graduation ceremony in Riverside Gardens Park in June. (Photo by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge)

[NOTE: This post was updated to include a prepared statement from charter school Superintendent Pennotti.]

By JOHN T. WARD

just_in1A group of parents and Latino rights advocates have asked the federal Justice Department to “investigate and ultimately remedy” enrollment and funding practices at the Red Bank Charter School that they claim make the borough’s public schools the “most segregated” in New Jersey.

In documents released Tuesday, the Latino Coalition of New Jersey and the newly formed Fair Schools Red Bank claim the school and the administration of Governor Chris Christie have violated the civil rights of borough students by failing to address ethnic, socio-econonic and fiscal disparities between the charter school and the public school district from which it was carved out 18 years ago.

rbcs lottery 042816 3Charter school officials conducted the school’s first-ever “weighted” enrollment lottery last April, a process criticized in the Justice Department filing as ineffective. (Photo by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge)

“We seek the integration of the Red Bank Public Schools by creating a unified school district,” the organizations said in the Justice Department filing, “and assert that this cannot be done without the disbanding of the charter school.”

The 17-page complaint alleges that “at every turn,” the charter school, the state education department, the Christie Administration and the state Legislature have “failed Red Bank’s children by turning a blind eye to the segregative impact that the RBCS is having on Red Bank.”

Here’s the complaint: civil-rights-complaint-111516

In a prepared statement, charter school Superintendent Meredith Pennotti said “it’s sad this small group that seems bent on further dividing the community has chosen to file a meritless complaint against our school.

“The fact is our student body more closely reflects the borough’s school-age population than the district schools,” she said. “How this group can willfully ignore this fact is truly an indication of how desperate they have become in their zeal to close a school that has served children of Red Bank well for nearly two decades.”

In an opinion piece published last week by the Asbury Park Press’ app.com, Pennotti wrote that the Oakland Street-based K-through-8 “is not the segregated school that our detractors would lead residents to believe,” and laid blame for that image on “the same small but vocal group in town” that “kicks into high gear in an effort to shut us down” when the school comes up for renewal every five years, as it has this year.

“Once again, they are using the same old tired arguments about how Red Bank Charter School creates segregation in the borough schools, an argument that was thoroughly debunked by the state Appellate Division more than a decade ago,” Pennotti wrote, referring to a 2004 appellate court ruling that ended a legal battle begun three years earlier by the district over a charter renewal and expansion plan.

But the aftermath of that litigation resulted in a March, 2007, consent agreement between the district and the charter school that the Latino Coalition and Fair Schools claim the charter school has failed to honor.

In it, the charter school agreed to “use its best efforts to assure that the gender, race/ethnicity, economic status and limited English proficient percentages of students attending the [Red Bank] Charter School equate as closely as practicable with” those of the district, according to the federal complaint. That included recruitment efforts to ensure balance in the school’s enrollment lottery.

“However, the RBCS has ignored virtually all provisions of the Consent Order, and the demographic disparity among white, Hispanic, LEP [Limited English Proficient] and poor students has only accelerated” in the past nine years, according to the complaint, which includes these graphics:

charter-v-district-white-enrollment-111516

charter-v-district-hispanic-enrollment-111516

charter-v-district-lep-enrollment-111516

The complaint comes less than a year after the charter school embarked on an expansion effort that proved highly divisive in town, and ended in failure, when the Department of Education rejected the request, which would have doubled enrollment over three years, to 400 students.

Pennotti told redbankgreen last week that the school has “no specific plans to petition for expansion.”

Though its expansion proposal was rejected in February, the school later won state approval for the use of a “weighted” lottery structured to give socio-economically disadvantaged kids better odds of gaining admission, a process that was put into effect in April. It was expected to take years to create parity with the district’s makeup, Pennotti acknowledged at the time.

The Justice Department complaint alleges, however, that the weighted lottery “is only aimed at increasing enrollment of poor students, [and] does nothing to address racial segregation.”

The complaint also alleges disparities in funding, claiming that “because of the school funding policies of the administration of Governor Chris Christie, the state of New Jersey has determined that the education of students at the RBCS, who are wealthier and whiter than the Red Bank Borough Public Schools, is worth far more than the education of students at its host district public schools, which are predominantly poor and Hispanic.”

More from the complaint:

According to the NJ DOE’s own data, the per-pupil cost of the Red Bank Charter School has soared to $18,726, or $2,119 more than the per-pupil cost of the Red Bank Borough Public Schools, which is at $16,607, according to the most recent Taxpayer’s Guide to Education Spending. What this means is that the RBCS can afford things like two teachers in every small class of 20 students. It can afford “boutique fitness” classes, including dance, spin, and cross fit. It can afford to put a public relations firm on retainer for $3,300 a month. And it can afford to give its principal, Meredith Pennotti, two raises in the span of three months, bringing her total salary to $151,964.80, which is nearly $7,000 more than Red Bank Borough School Superintendent Jared Rumage, who now oversees two schools of more than 1,400 students, while Pennotti oversees one school of 200 students.

The complaint says that borough taxpayers “are powerless to reverse this segregation, and yet they are forced to subsidize it,” spending nearly $2 million a year in duplicative costs to support two public school systems — “a predominantly poor and Hispanic public school of 1,400 students, and a much smaller, wealthier and whiter school of 200 students.”

Here are press releases issued by the two groups involved in the filing:

Fair Schools Red Bank: fair-schools-press-release-111516

Latino Coalition: latino-coalition-press-release-111516

 

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