By JOHN T. WARD
In nearly every public utterance throughout the three-month battle over a proposed Red Bank Charter School expansion, borough schools Superintendent Jared Rumage said he welcomed the chance to talk about the district as it exists today, not as it was a generation ago.
His goal wasn’t simply to rebut what he called “fiction” in the charter school’s projections about the financial impact on the host district. Just as much, Rumage said, was the need to answer what he consider a baseless slap at the district. District parents and students marched from the middle school to a borough council meeting on a freezing night in January to protest the charter school plan. Below, district board of ed President Carrie Ludwikowski. (Photo by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge)
While charter school Business Administrator David Block contended that the district would benefit from the expansion — an assertion later withdrawn by a school spokesman — opponents complained that approval of the plan would saddle the host district with crippling expenses, leading to reduced staffing, larger classroom populations, the elimination of music and other programs, and higher taxes.
But the charter plan was also premised on what Rumage said was a myth: that the students were “disengaged or disenfranchised from their community,” in the words of the charter application to the state.
Those turned out to be fighting words. On Monday, Rumage called them “false accusations — that we’re not a good school district.”
From the outset, charter school Principal and Superintendent Meredith Pennotti said she expected “public discord” over the proposal. She was proven correct.
Rallied by Rumage and a core group of parents, the district mounted a pushback effort that drew a standing-room crowd to the middle school for a December 17 rally; a march on a freezing January night to a borough council meeting; a full-house hearing at the middle school that was boycotted by charter school trustees; a packed house at the charter school in February; an anti-expansion petition that garnered 760 signatures; and a steady stream of comments on redbankgreen.
Their message: that the district, despite the challenges associated with educating a greater proportion of economically disadvantaged children, many of them newly learning the English language, was able to hold its own and even outperform the charter school academically.
“The community support was unbelievable,” said Rumage. “I found it overwhelming.” He noted that the meeting turnouts dwarfed anti-charter gatherings when the new school was proposed in the late 1990s, and again when it expanded in 2004.
“It was like nothing this community has ever seen before,” said district board president Carrie Ludwikowski. “That’s been a humongous positive.”
Rumage “took a lot of time to talk about the challenges some children have, and the progress they make over time,” said state Senator Jen Beck, a borough resident and former council member.
The charter school was also able to pack its own STEM lab with dozens of parents at two meetings. But a “snowstorm” of social media posts in support of the expansion that Pennotti called for never materialized.
The pushback effort paid off. New Jersey Education Commissioner David Hespe cited a “review of public comments” in his denial. A department spokesman declined to take follow-up questions on the factors that went into the decision. Here’s the letter: RBCS Denial Letter 022916
“Story changed,” Rumage declared in a Twitter post announcing the decision Monday afternoon. “Thanks for believing in us & our children.”
The outcome, though, was widely unexpected. Governor Chris Christie has championed the openings of new charter schools and expansions of existing ones, and the Red Bank application was a response to Hespe encouraging successful charters to expand, Pennotti has said. That led many observers to think an approval was a foregone conclusion.
“Every day, I’d see the arrogance of the charter school, and I’d think, they must know they have the governor” behind them, said district board member Sue Viscomi. “But logic won, for once, in government.”
She credited, in part, Rumage “telling the story.”
Even Beck, a Republican who is frequently mentioned as a potential gubernatorial candidate, said she was surprised by the denial. But she told redbankgreen that she met with Christie last week to discuss school underfunding issues, and “he was aware of” the controversy over the Red Bank Charter School’s application.
Parent Wayne Woolley, who with his wife, Judy DeHaven, helped organize opposition to the expansion, said he “trusted the Department of Education to understand how a municipality funds its schools” and rely on the district’s financial projections. (DeHaven also served on the “blue ribbon” commission put together by Mayor Pasquale Menna to weigh in on the proposal.)
Pennotti declined to be interviewed for this article. In a prepared statement issued Monday, the school said it was “disappointed” by the rejection, calling it a “missed opportunity” to serve more economically disadvantaged students
People involved in the effort cited Rumage for his leadership.
“Without him at the helm, who can say if this would have gone the other way?” said Ludwikowski. “He’s been tireless.”
Has the story of the district been changed?
“It was a good opportunity to showcase where our kids go” after they’ve moved on in life, said Woolley, citing the experience of two district graduates who later attended Harvard and West Point. “Meredith Pennotti gave us a gift by letting us talk about the good our schools do. I really should thank her for that.”
Rumage said the controversy “accelerated the opportunity for us to change the narrative” about the district’s two schools as educational laggards.
“I don’t want to say I welcomed this challenge. That’s crazy talk,” Rumage said. “But in terms of being able to tell the community what they have here — it’s a hidden gem, and we’ve been able to polish it.”