By JOHN T. WARD
At their first gathering since a controversial doubling of enrollment was proposed last month, Red Bank Charter School officials sought to enlist the school’s parents in a campaign to push back against opponents of the plan Wednesday night.
About 75 parents crowded into newly rented classroom space for a meeting billed as a “family facts” session that members of the general public were not permitted to attend. But many of those present complained they’d been blindsided by the expansion proposal and poorly informed about how to defend it against sometimes hostile criticism by other borough residents.
Parents arriving at the charter school’s newly rented space at 135 Monmouth Street Wednesday night, above. Below, parent Elizabeth Murphy asks a question during the meeting. (Photos by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge)
The charter school proposal, unveiled on December 1, calls for an enrollment increase to 400 students over three years beginning in September. But the initiative has drawn criticism from supporters of the non-charter borough schools, who contend it would “devastate” the district, draining it of already-insufficient funding, a claim that charter school officials and their allies disputed.
Flanked by Trenton lobbyists and a pair of ex-superintendents-turned-consultants, charter Principal Meredith Pennotti said one key reason the school is seeking to expand is “the political climate” — specifically, Governor Chris Christie’s unabashed support of school choice.
“Did you hear him underscore charter schools?” in his state of the state address last week, Pennotti asked the audience. With two years left in his second term as governor, and perhaps less if his quest for the presidency leads to an early departure, “we’re taking advantage of that opportunity,” she said.
Christie mentioned charter schools 19 times in the speech, and called them “a resounding success for our state.”
“In two years, when he’s gone, this opportunity may not exist,” said New Jersey Charter Schools Association president Nicole Cole, “That’s a pretty critical piece. The time is now for your good schools to be looking at growing seats.”
Christie’s support should give parents of the school’s students heart, no matter what kind of blowback is occurring locally, Cole said. She noted that the decision on the expansion proposal rests with New Jersey Education Commissioner David Hespe and, ultimately, the governor who hired him.
“You kind of have to look past it,” she said of the criticism, adding, “not to say that local people won’t have voice.”
Still, several parents complained that they were surprised to learn of the proposal in late November at a tour of the school’s new STEM lab in rented space at 135 Monmouth Street, a commercial building that abuts the charter school campus on Oakland Street. Others said they had been subjected to hostile comments in places like the Foodtown supermarket, and found themselves ill-prepared to offer fact-based rebuttals.
“We’ve faced people who are own neighbors, not knowing how to defend ourselves,” said parent Lisa Keele. “We’re so far on the back foot.”
Former borough Councilman Mike DuPont said the school’s board of trustees had done a “lousy” job of informing parents both about the expansion and salient information that could be used to answer critics. Another parent called the handling of the proposal “a PR disaster.”
Trustee Janice Havay acknowledged the complaints, saying “I won’t make any excuses. I think we are a little delayed” in responding.
Hoping to supply the attendees with the information they demanded, David Block, the charter school’s business administrator, walked the audience through four powerpoint slides of funding data that he said contended that, rather than being “devastated,” the district would actually benefit financially if the expansion goes through.
“We’re saving, by being here, by existing, $480,000 a year,” he said, adding,”the more students who come here, the more the borough would save.”
One chart showed that while the district’s tax levy had risen by $3.9 million, or 33.5 percent, from 2009 to this year, the annual sum paid to the charter school by the district had declined by $129,000 over the same period, from $1.8 million to $1.67 million.
Another asserted that “residents of Red Bank pay $2,294.79 LESS per pupil for those attending the Red Bank Charter School than they do for those attending” the district schools.
Asked why many members of the community believe the charter plan would result in a tax increase, Block replied, “because they have to blame someone.”
Former Brick Township schools superintendent Mel Persi, now a consultant, said the expansion would siphon students from the fast-growing, 1,300-student district, thus sparing it from having to build new classrooms to accommodate growth.
“The school district really comes out ahead” if the charter plan goes forward, he said. “There’s no way that taxes have to be increased.”
That conclusion “is quite clear to us, having been here just four hours,” Persi said, referring to himself and and Anthony Novembre, his partner in Toms River-based Integrated Support Solutions.
The meeting came hours after Pennotti withdrew from a planned hearing by Mayor Pasquale Menna’s so-called blue-ribbon commission on the proposal, scheduled to be held at the Red Bank Middle School auditorium at 7 p.m. Friday, weather permitting. A snowstorm is forecast.
Both Pennotti and district Superintendent Jared Rumage had been expected to make presentations to the panel, which is in hurry-up mode to come up with a report in time for a February 1 deadline before Hespe issues a decision. But Pennotti said she cancelled after being “called horrible names” on her way into the panel’s organization meeting at borough hall Monday.
She urged the charter parents to stick to the rhetorical “high road. I hope none of you is going to call the superintendent the curse words they called me,” she said.
Pennotti lamented that so much attention was being paid to taxes, and so little to education. While the charter school is a Tier 1 school, she said, there is a “30 or more point spread” in achievement between it and the district schools. That’s the reality.” And while the district has good teachers, “I would say they have a problem with leadership.” she said. “Six superintendents over 15 years? How the heck do you get a game plan if the head coach changes all the time?”
Charter parents were urged to use social media to tout positive experiences about the school and to press officials in Trenton to approve the plan. “Red Bank has to look like it had a snowstorm” of pro-charter comments by Friday, Pennotti said.
Pennotti told redbankgreen earlier in the day that the charter school would host, sometime early next week, an open public forum “to hear what [residents and others] have to say and let them hear what we have to say.”
Here’s the charter school’s application to the DOE: RBCS Amendment Request Dec 2015