By JOHN T. WARD
In an audacious bid to educate more borough children, the Red Bank Charter School has asked the New Jersey Department of Education for permission to double its enrollment over the next three years.
The move is likely to provoke “public discord” and impose “financial hardship” on the district from which the charter school sprang in 1998, charter school Principal Meredith Pennotti acknowledged in a letter to the DOE dated December 1. But it’s needed to address disparities in achievement between students in the two systems, she wrote.
Red Bank schools Superintendent Jared Rumage blasted the proposal as reflecting nearly 20-year-old attitudes about the district, and said its implementation would be “devastating.”
“That perception of who we were 20 years ago is irrelevant,” he told redbankgreen Tuesday morning.
Citing what she called a “status quo” in “the landscape of public education” in the borough, Pennotti said increasing the size of the 200-student charter school “could influence a substantial shift to higher achievement for a significant number of Red Bank children.”
In its filing with the state, the pre-K-through-8 charter school, on Oakland Street, proposed a gradual doubling in its number of classes, to two per grade, and the number of students, to 40 per grade, starting as early as next September with grades pre-k through 4. Full implementation would increase total enrollment to 400 by the 2018-’19 school year, according to the filing.
Admission would be based on a weighted lottery system, with “family” preference given to children whose siblings are already enrolled, according to the document.
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 application cites “significant” disparities in academic performance between the charter and borough district students, and says that while the charter school ranks among the top 73 percent of elementary schools statewide, the district middle school outperforms only 19 percent.
Moreover, the demand for spots in schools other than the district system argues for the expansion, according to the document. Thirty-five percent of borough children either attend the charter school or a private school or are on the charter school wait list for openings, according to a section of the filing titled “family preference for choice.”
Here’s the charter school’s application to the DOE: RBCS Amendment Request Dec 2015
In her letter, Pennotti said the charter school expects “public discord,” over the proposal.
“We’re by nature controversial. We challenge the status quo,” she told redbankgreen in a brief interview Tuesday morning. “We’re not the Cancer Society or some nice thing that everybody can get behind. We’re challenging the institution. And so for us not to acknowledge that would be foolish.”
Rumage, however, said the charter school plan is based on “unfair comparisons” between itself and the 1,300-student district he heads, in which close to 90 percent of students are socio-economically disadvantaged and many enter the lower grades as Spanish-only speakers.
More important than standardized test results, he said, are the rising skill levels of students “as they journey through” the primary and middle schools, he said. “As they leave us, they’re performing fairly well,” he said.
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.
Asked whether a doubling of the charter school’s size would mean the district would have to pony up twice as much, Rumage said the answer was unclear, “but I don’t think that’s a stretch.” He added that the district could be forced to share that portion even if most of the enrollment growth at the charter school came private schools.
An increase of that magnitude “would be devastating to our school community,” he said. “I can’t allow that to happen.”
According to the state DOE’s Taxpayer’s Guide to Education Spending, the district’s per-pupil cost in 2013-’14 was $16,035, compared to $17,903 for the charter school.
Pennotti said the decision on the request rests solely with the state DOE, with no public hearings. She said a ruling is not expected before late February. Rumage said he had not gotten official notice of the plan from Trenton, and plans to formally oppose it.
The charter school earlier this month began leasing space at 135 Monmouth Street for STEM and performing arts classes, Pennotti said. Ideally, the school would be able to acquire the building in order to have predictable fixed costs, she said, adding that the school is “investigating” the option with the owner.
The building, at nearly 14,000 square feet, is listed as owned by A.C.S. Monmouth Associates LLC of Ocean Township, and is assessed by the borough at nearly $1.4 million.
“It’s literally nine feet off the back of this wall,” Pennotti said. An acquisition “would be ideal,” she said.
The application said the charter school is now operating at a surplus, “is in a financial position to transition seamlessly into a larger enrollment,” and anticipates its surplus would grow if the expansion plan is approved and implemented. The forecast is based on anticipated state and local aid per student, the document said.
According to a September article in the Asbury Park Press, the charter school had a surplus of more than $525,000 in the 2013-’14 school year. Charter schools need to build up sizable surpluses to pay for facilities because state funds won’t cover capital costs, according the New Jersey Charter Schools Association.
“Though we’re a public school, we have absolutely no assistance in locating or renovating or securing a facility,” Pennotti said.
The district board is scheduled to meet at the middle school at 7 p.m. tonight, though the charter school proposal is not on the public agenda. [UPDATE: The agenda now includes discussion of the proposal, according to board President Ben Forest, who said the plan would cause “severe” financial impact to the district.]
A parents group has scheduled a meeting on the charter school plan for 7 p.m. Thursday at the middle school, Rumage said.