By JOHN T. WARD
Who’s behind the Civil Rights complaint against the Red Bank Charter School filed with the Justice Department earlier this week?
According to charter school Superintendent Meredith Pennotti, it’s a “small group that seems bent on further dividing the community” with a complaint that she called “meritless.”
But more than 20 parents have had roles in the effort, says Wayne Woolley, one of the organizers of Fair Schools Red Bank, which was created to pursue the claim, filed jointly filed Tuesday with the Latino Coalition of New Jersey.
Moreover, he said, the anti-charter faction has the tacit support of hundreds of members of a closed Facebook group, many of whom helped turn rallies held earlier this year into standing-room-only events.
“To call the 500 people who packed the auditorium in this building a ‘small group’ — that takes a lot of nerve,” Woolley told redbankgreen following a district board of ed meeting at the middle school Tuesday night.
The district, headed by Superintendent Jared Rumage, is not involved in the federal complaint, which alleges persistent ethnic, socio-econonic and fiscal disparities between the charter school and the public school district from which it was carved out 18 years ago.
Citing comparative enrollment figures that differ from those supplied by the charter school, the claim calls the borough’s public schools the “most segregated” in New Jersey. It asks the Justice Department to ensure “the integration of the Red Bank Public Schools by creating a unified school district,” and asserts that “this cannot be done without the disbanding of the charter school.”
Here’s the complaint: civil-rights-complaint-111516
A Justice Department official did not return a redbankgreen request for comment on the filing.
In an opinion piece published last week by the Asbury Park Press’ app.com, Pennotti wrote that the Oakland Street-based K-through-8 “is not the segregated school that our detractors would lead residents to believe,” and laid blame for that image on “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.
Following Tuesday’s filing with the feds, Pennotti said “it’s sad this small group that seems bent on further dividing the community has chosen to file a meritless complaint against our school.”
In state filings made in support of last year’s failed expansion effort and in its pending request for a five-year renewal, the charter school flatly rejects allegations of segregation. Even though its ratio of white students to minorities is higher than that of the district, and its enrollment of Hispanic children lower by half, the 199-student school “more closely reflects the borough’s school-age population” than the 1,400-student district schools, Pennotti said in a statement Tuesday.
Moreover, the charter school sought and received permission earlier this year to institute a weighted enrollment lottery to boost the odds of socio-economically disadvantaged children winning coveted spots at the school. It’s efforts, she wrote in the extension request, justify relieving the school of the terms of a March, 2007, consent agreement with the district in which the charter school agreed to “use its best efforts to assure that the gender, race/ethnicity, economic status and limited English proficient percentages of students attending the [Red Bank] Charter School equate as closely as practicable with” those of the district.
But Frank Argote-Freyre, director of the Freehold-based Latino Coalition, said the group, which typically fights for minority rights in the legal process and housing issues, got involved in the charter issue after talking with a number of Hispanic Red Bank parents who said they had never been informed about their right to apply for the school’s enrollment lottery.
“Many of them are under the impression it’s a private school,” Argote-Freyre said. “It’s very under-the-radar marketing.”
He said backing for the charter shutdown effort includes “a sizable number of folks who are public and others who are supportive but don’t wish” to be named.
“What is [Pennotti’s] support base?” he asked. “I have seen no evidence that it’s greater.”
Leo Rojas, a parent who has two children in the district schools, is among the 20 parents included in a list of supporters of the Civil Rights filing supplied to redbankgreen by Woolley. Rojas also traveled to Trenton earlier this year as part of an effort to block the charter school’s expansion effort.
He told redbankgreen that he had never been notified about the charter school lottery and was unaware of the charter school’s existence before his oldest child, now at Red Bank Regional High, was already in the district school. When he became aware of the school, he learned that it had a long waiting list, he said.
“They don’t say it out loud, but they don’t have to,” he said. “It’s like they want to keep the minorities out of the charter school. Where I am, I’m happy, but it’s not right.”
Rojas said he had “mixed feelings” about calling for the demise of the school, because he has friends whose children attend. “But the way they run things, it’s just not right,” he said. “I believe we all deserve a chance. They need to be fair to all the people of Red Bank.”
Woolley said the anti-charter effort did not have any outside funding or legal support except for two local attorneys who reviewed the complaint before it was filed.