The charter school recently leased space at 135 Monmouth Street, the former home of Prown’s Home Improvements, and hopes to acquire the building for its planned expansion. (Photo by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge)
By JOHN T. WARD
A proposal to double enrollment at the Red Bank Charter School proved fighting words to the borough district Tuesday night.
If allowed, the expansion of the 200-student charter school “will almost certainly lead to a significant tax increase, as well as a multitude of cuts” in services at the borough schools, a visibly riled Superintendent Jared Rumage told a small audience at a board of education meeting held at the middle school.
“I cannot and will not allow our children to be left behind,” he said.
A new promotional video for the charter school tells its history through interviews with founders and others. (Courtesy of Red Bank Charter School)
Rumage’s comments preceded the board’s unanimous approval of a resolution authorizing its attorney, Richard McOmber, to “take all legal action necessary to oppose” the charter school bid, which Rumage and other officials fear will financially drain the two-school district.
In an application to the New Jersey Department of Education on December 1, the charter school asked for permission to double its enrollment over the next three years.
In her cover letter to the application, charter school Principal Meredith Pennotti acknowledged that the move is likely to provoke “public discord” and impose “financial hardship” on the district from which the charter school sprang in 1998. But the change is needed to break the “status quo,” in which, she maintained, charter school students outperform their district counterparts.
That didn’t sit well with Rumage.
“The landscape of education in Red Bank is far from ‘status quo,’ as some people would have you believe,” Rumage said. “We are raising the bar of education in Red Bank.”
Citing a slogan used to motivate the district’s 1,300 students — “BIA,” for Best in America— Rumage said, “Why not BIA? We’re already BIRB.”
By law, the borough district is required to share its state aid with the charter school. Under the current budget, the district will transfer $1.56 million to the charter school this year, or roughly half its $3 million in state aid. Rumage and other officials expressed concern Tuesday that the sum forwarded to the charter school could double, even as the state continues to underfund the district.
In an interview Tuesday evening, Pennotti confirmed to redbankgreen that the idea for the expansion came from the state education department itself, which has sole say over whether the application gets approved.
The DOE has adopted a philosophy of encouraging top-tier charter schools to expand or replicate themselves, so that it isn’t investing as much in the past in start-ups with no track record, Pennotti said.
“We are a well-established school,” she said. “There was a time when there was less emphasis on that, but here they want a proven product. The fact that we meet the criteria of a proven product is a good thing.”
Board president Ben Forest, however, worried that suggests the district faces an unfair fight.
Forest, who was absent from the meeting, told redbankgreen earlier in the day that he found the notion that the DOE both encouraged and is evaluating the plan “alarming.”
“I would expect that the state would have an even hand here and look at our case objectively,” he said. “I hope it’s not the case.”
If approved, the charter school plan would be phased in over three years, with new students selected via a “weighted lottery,” in which children of economically disadvantaged families would get three ping-pong balls, versus two for non-disadvantaged kids, in a drawing, Pennotti said. As at present, siblings of current students would get admissions preference.
The additional students would be taught in classrooms at a “satellite” campus recently opened on Monmouth Street in an office and retail structure that formerly housed Prown’s Home Improvements, Pennotti said. The property abuts the rear yard of the charter school campus on Oakland Street.
The board’s resolution also authorized McOmber to hire “needed experts” to provide evidence and testimony should the DOE approve the expansion. At the request of board member Michael Ballard, the board agreed to amend the resolution to require McOmber to keep the board abreast of anticipated fees.
A parents group has scheduled a meeting on the charter school plan for 7 p.m. Thursday at the middle school.