Charter school Principal Meredith Pennotti with a school cofounder, Michael Stasi, center, and trustee Roger Foss, in blue tie. Below, charter school parent and middle school employee Diana Archila addresses the crowd as charter school spokesman Kevin King looks on. (Photo by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge)
By JOHN T. WARD
After what’s been called “a PR disaster” involving its proposed plan to double enrollment, the Red Bank Charter School shifted into corporate communications mode Tuesday night.
Over the course of a two-hour forum that drew a fired-up, overflow crowd in its new STEM lab on Monmouth Street, school officials, with one exception, refused to answer questions, rebut criticisms or even state positions on their own proposal plan, instead sitting silently and letting critics have their say.
And for reporters, school officials deferred all questions to a polished corporate spokesman who stayed rigorously on-message.
By agreement with reporters, what had been billed as a “press conference and open public forum” was modified shortly before the event began so that the public could have the floor, with press questions deferred until afterward.
But whether reporters asked their questions during or after the event, “volunteer spokesman” Kevin King alone would answer them, he said beforehand. Neither Principal Meredith Pennotti, who in the past has fielded all media inquiries, nor members of the school’s board of trustees would be available for interviews, he said.
Roger Foss, vice president of the board, spoke to the audience, but only to read a prepared statement to announce the school had amended its expansion proposal, so that 60 of the eventual 200 new students would be enrolled in the first year of the rollout, rather than 120 as previously planned.
Cristie Ritz King spoke, a trustee and Kevin King’s wife, also addressed the crowd to voice her “vehement” support of the expansion, on the basis that it provided borough parents a choice of where to educate their children, she said.
“Sometimes big isn’t a fit, sometimes small isn’t a fit,” she said.”Isn’t it great that we have a choice?”
But Pennotti spoke little more than to welcome the audience and introduce King, who acted as master of ceremonies. And her stony silence as she sat in the front row triggered anger among some of the residents who took to the microphone.
“One of my big concerns is that Mrs. Pennotti has not addressed us at all,” said Laura Dardi, of Oakland Street. “She has addressed the charter school parents, but I feel she has not answered any of the questions of the parents of public school children.”
“We finally, finally got an opportunity to talk to you,” said Morford Place resident Sue Viscomi, addressing Pennotti. “I wish we were able to get our questions answered. I wish we we able to get your perspective.”
The school officials’ silence enraged Branch Avenue resident Steven Hecht, who grabbed the live mic after the event concluded to castigate Pennotti.
“It is indecent that Mrs. Pennotti and every member of the board of trustees has refused to comment on anything that has been said tonight,” he shouted, to applause. “You are public employees. Have you no decency? I guess you have no decency.”
King, the father of three charter school children who works as a spokesman for telecom giant Verizon, then met with a small cluster of reporters. Here’s a condensed version of the exchange, with verbatim quotes:
Why didn’t Pennotti or any other members of the board speak?
“We wanted this to be an open forum, for people from the community to speak,” King said. “Our information has been provided in the expansion application.”
Has there been any talk of rescinding the application?
Which was correct: The charter school’s assertion, in its application filed with the state on December 1, that the expansion would inflict “financial hardship” on the district schools; or charter school Business Administrator David Block’s claim last month that the district would benefit financially if the plan is approved?
“I think the information we presented in our application is accurate,” King said.
So Block’s analysis was wrong?
“You’ll have to talk to Mr. Block about that.”
But he works for the school, and you speak for the school. Are you discounting everything he said?
“I’m not discounting everything he said. I would refer you to that expansion application that we submitted to the state.”
What does the charter school have to say about the blue-ribbon panel report last week that alleged “deep disparities” in racial and ethnic mixes of the charter and district schools?
“I’m not going to comment on the panel report,” King said.”I’ll refer you back to our application, [which says] our population closely mirrors the school-age population of Red Bank.”
Why is the charter school holding its forum two months after filing its plan with the state and two days after the official comment period closed? (King replied the reason was twofold: because the school had news to announce — the statement read by Foss — and to give the community a chance to speak.)
Was the expansion plan developed in secret?
“No. All the board meetings are public.”
Was it discussed in public, or in executive session?
“I do not know. You’ll have to check the minutes.”
Charter school parents say they only learned about the expansion plan in mid-December, two weeks after the application was filed with the state. Is that correct?
“I’ll have to check, but my understanding is yes, that’s when parents were notified.”
But you just said that all meetings are public. How could they not have known if the meetings are public?
“I don’t know. You’ll have to ask if parents had attended.”
But you agree that most parents learned about it in mid-December?
Was the handling of the expansion plan “a PR disaster,” as charter parent and former Councilman Mike DuPont said last month?
“Well look, I think we saw some passionate voices tonight. I think any time there’s change, there’s going to be people who are disappointed with change.”
Unlike some corporate PR staffs, however, King made no effort to sequester reporters from the people on whose behalf he spoke. But those officials stuck to the new script.
Pennotti declined to speak to redbankgreen on record, except to say that having all questions go through King enabled the school to put out a clear, unified message.
A trustee who asked not to be named said the reason for his silence was the district board’s December 16 decision to authorize its attorney to “take all legal action necessary to oppose” the charter school bid, in the words of a resolution.
“That was the opening shot,” he said.