[See update, below]
By JOHN T. WARD
Red Bank Charter School Superintendent Meredith Pennotti went on the offensive Thursday, blasting critics who claim the publicly funded alternate school is responsible for “segregation” of school-aged children in the borough.
In an opinion piece published by the Asbury Park Press’ app.com, Pennotti took aim at what she calls “the same small but vocal group in town” that “kicks into high gear in an effort to shut us down” when the school comes up for renewal every five years, as it has this year.
“Once again, they are using the same old tired arguments about how Red Bank Charter School creates segregation in the borough schools, an argument that was thoroughly debunked by the state Appellate Division more than a decade ago,” Pennotti wrote, referring to a 2004 appellate court ruling that ended a legal battle begun three years earlier by the district over a charter renewal and expansion plan.
From the op-ed:
Red Bank Charter School is not the segregated school that our detractors would lead residents to believe. Our school population is roughly 49 percent white, 39 percent Latino and 10 percent black, which closely tracks the school-age population of Red Bank, which is 41 percent white, 40 percent Latino and 18 percent black.
On the other hand, Red Bank Primary School is 80 percent Latino, 10 percent black and 7 percent white while the Middle School is 75 percent Latino, 14 percent black and 9 percent white.
The real question is why isn’t the Red Bank district more reflective of the school-age population of the borough?
Pennotti’s essay makes no mention of either the effort she led to win state approval to double the charter school’s enrollment almost a year ago, or of the hundreds of residents who successfully rallied to stop it.
The op-ed appeared almost three weeks after an opinion piece published by the Star-Ledger on NJ.com, in which Maria De Los Angeles Santamaria Zacaria, the mother of a middle school sixth-grader, called the charter school “a bastion of segregation and privilege.” Zacaria urged the state Department of Education to deny the charter school’s recent filing for a five-year renewal of its charter.
Long-dormant assertions of segregation in the public schools came roaring back last December, when the charter school embarked on its expansion quest, which critics said would deplete district funding, leading to teacher layoffs and cuts in programs.
According figures compiled by district Superintendent Jared Rumage earlier this year, 90 percent of the district’s 1,407 students were Hispanic or African-American, compared to 48 percent of the charter school’s students. In addition, he contended, 88 percent of the district’s children were economically disadvantaged, compared to 40 percent of the charter school’s.
A report by an ad hoc committee appointed by Mayor Pasquale Menna to examine the potential impacts of the expansion revived accusations that the town has “the most segregated” schools in New Jersey, and that the charter school’s enrollment did not mirror the socio-economic makeup of the district’s middle and primary schools.
Though its highly controversial expansion proposal was rejected in February, the school later won state approval for the use of a lottery structured to give socio-economically disadvantaged kids better odds of gaining admission, a process that was put into effect in April. It is expected to take years to create parity with the district’s makeup, Pennotti acknowledged at the time.
In her piece, Pennotti does not address whether the charter school will again ask the Christie Administration, now entering its final year, for an expansion approval. The Asbury Park Press reported last week that “there is every expectation Red Bank Charter will try anew,” but did not attribute that assertion to anyone. The article said Pennotti “doesn’t rule out the prospect” of a renewed expansion effort.
Pennotti did not immediately respond Thursday to a redbankgreen request for comment on the school’s plans regarding expansion.
[UPDATE: Pennotti told redbankgreen via email Thursday that “While we have no specific plans to petition for expansion, it is important to stress that Red Bank Charter School has always been poised for growth – in terms of instructional program, social development activities and support for students, curricula and more interaction within the Red Bank community. We are not going to shy away from our mission of providing public school choice for the families in Red Bank.”]
Pennotti confirmed in April that, in the wake of the expansion plan denial, a short-term sublease with Prown’s Home Improvements on the first-floor retail space at 135 Monmouth Street had been allowed to lapse. The space, which was to have housed classrooms under the expansion, remains vacant.
The school has a long-term lease, with the building owner, on space elsewhere in the building, which it uses as a STEM lab and for other purposes.
In June, the charter school’s board of trustees authorized a one-year, $3,300-per-month contract with, Skyway Strategies of Fanwood, which bills itself as a campaign management firm in New Jersey elections. A “scope-of-work” proposal preceding the contract, was written by another firm, Jaffe Communications, promised to create a committee that would “recruit other parents and work with Jaffe Communications to train an Army of media savvy members who can write letters to the editor, write op-eds, make positive comments and rapidly respond to negative comments via social media and news websites.”
The connection, if any, between Skyway and Jaffe was not made clear, though the two firms have the same phone number. A request for comment sent to Jaffe officials was not immediately answered.