By JOHN T. WARD
With the first flakes of an anticipated blizzard falling outside, a hearing on a proposed enrollment expansion by the Red Bank Charter School was predictably one-sided Friday night.
As expected, charter school Principal Meredith Pennotti was a no-show, as were the school’s trustees, but not because of the weather. They issued a statement earlier in the day saying they were staying way because the panel that called the hurry-up session should take more time in order to conduct “an in-depth analysis without outside pressure.”
Less expected was district Superintendent Jared Rumage’s strongly worded attack of charter school data, which he said obscured its role in making Red Bank “the most segregated school system in New Jersey.”
2015 middle school teacher of the year J.T. Pierson implored the panel to look “not only at the facts,” but into their hearts. Seats reserved for trustees of the charter school went unused, below. (Photos by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge)
The charter school proposal calls for an enrollment increase to 400 students over three years beginning in September. Supporters of the non-charter borough schools contend the expansion would “devastate” the district, draining it of already-insufficient funding, a claim that charter school officials and their allies disputed at a closed-door meeting Wednesday night.
As a row of chairs reserved for charter school officials sat conspicuously empty, a standing-room crowd gathered in the middle school auditorium heard Rumage revisit familiar themes, claiming that the expansion plan filed with the state Department of Education on December 1 relies on outdated perceptions about the district.
Continuing a battle of statistics that’s been waged for the past eight weeks, Rumage countered assertions made at a closed meeting Wednesday, where charter school parents were told the expansion would have no adverse impact on the district, and would in fact bolster the district coffers.
He also zeroed in on what he called a “huge discrepancy” in the demographic makeup of the two schools, with 88 percent of the district’s students either economically disadvantaged or learning English from the start, compared to 4 percent of the charter’s students, he said. Rumage discussed Census data that he said showed that the charter school is significantly whiter than the borough’s population of school-aged residents as a whole than charter data shows, and significantly underrepresented by Hispanics.
“Red Bank is viewed as a hip town, with a sophisticated culture,” Rumage said. “How can we support being home to the most segregated school system in New Jersey?”
None of the panel members asked any questions of Rumage.
About a dozen residents, ranging in age from teens to seniors, implored the panel not to allow the charter plan to imperil district programs. Rosie Perry told the audience that her leaps out of bed every morning “at the first alarm” in order to be on time for a music program she loves.
“But if we lose all these programs, how am I going to look my child in the eye and say, ‘we don’t have it,’?” she asked.
State Senator Jen Beck, a borough resident and former councilmember, told the audience she had met and spoken to Hespe several times, including earlier in the day, to press the case for full funding of the district, which she said had been shorted nearly $7 million by the state in recent years. The impact of the expansion plan would be to worsen the situation, she said.
“Be clear that this is a funding issue,” Beck said. Of more than 600 school districts statewide, 143 are 10 percent or more below the funding levels mandated by both legislation and the state Supreme Court, and the Red Bank district is 37 percent below, she said.
If the expansion plan is allowed to go forward, the district “would have no additional resources,” while the charter school, by statute, would be assured funding of no less than $15,343 per student, a figure that’s already about $1,100 more per year than the district gets per student, Beck said.
“The challenge for us isn’t whether the charter school is good or bad, or if the district is good or bad,” she said. “The issue is the state of New Jersey is not properly funding Red Bank, not properly funding Freehold and 141 other districts, and that is the fight that I have been fighting since 2005.
“This expansion cannot more forward unless the state of New Jersey and the commissioner — and this is what I told him today — are going to fully fund” the district, she said. “Barring that, we can’t do it.”
Both Pennotti and Rumage had been expected to make presentations to the panel, appointed recently by Mayor Pasquale Menna to quickly assess the potential impact of the expansion on the borough, particularly in fiscal terms. The panel is under a deadline to file comments with New Jersey Education Commissioner David Hespe by February 1. Hespe has sole authority to decide the expansion plan.
But as previously reported by redbankgreen, Pennotti on Wednesday retracted an acceptance of the invitation to speak at the hearing. And on Friday, the charter school issued a statement that said:
“Given the short time frame and the complexity of school budgets, we strongly believe that the Committee members require more time in closed session to objectively review the data as presented by each side.”
Here’s the complete statement: RBCS on Blue Ribbon Committee 01216
Councilwoman Kathy Horgan, who chairs the review panel, said it will meet behind closed doors Monday night and come up with a report for the borough council, which holds its next semimonthly meeting on Wednesday.
Here’s the charter school’s application to the DOE: RBCS Amendment Request Dec 2015