By JOHN T. WARD
As requested three months ago by two advocacy groups, the federal
Justice Education Department is investigating allegations of segregation leveled at the Red Bank Charter School, correspondence obtained by redbankgreen on Tuesday showed.
The decision by the department’s Office of Civil Rights to open an investigation “in no way implies that the OCR has made a determination with regard to its merit,” a government letter to the complainants said.
But the revelation set off a fresh round of sniping in a bitter battle over the charter school’s existence.
The opening of the federal investigation, first reported Tuesday by the Asbury Park Press, came to light as the New Jersey Department of Education considers a charter school request for a five-year extension on its charter, or license to operate. A decision on that request is expected by February 28.
The groups claim the charter school’s enrollment practices have made Red Bank’s public schools “the most segregated” in New Jersey. They also claim the school used “outright fabrication” of demographic data to support its extension request.
The charter school, a 200-student K-8, disputes both allegations, and on Tuesday, its superintendent, Meredith Pennotti, said this in a prepared statement:
“The filing of this complaint is a transparent attempt by a small anti-charter group to cast a cloud over the Red Bank Charter School renewal application without actually having to prove their meritless claims before the acting Commissioner of Education makes her decision. They are seeking attention, not justice. We are confident that when the U.S. Department of Education actually takes a closer look into these unsubstantiated allegations, they will find Red Bank Charter School to be a model for how districts can create an academically high-achieving integrated school in a racially diverse district. When these detractors call a school that has more than 50 percent minorities a “bastion of segregation,” they have lost all their credibility and the DOE will discover that their hyperbole flies in the face of reality.”
Separately, in a February 2 letter to Acting Education Commissioner Kimberly Harrington, Pennotti said that with a 2016-17 enrollment that is 55.3 percent Hispanic and African-American, the charter school “can hardly be described as a ‘bastion of segregation.’” The borough’s school-age population is 36 percent white, 39 percent Hispanic and 25 percent African American, she wrote, citing Census data.
On Tuesday, Bruno Tedeschi, a public relations consultant hired by the school, said in an email to redbankgreen that “it’s obvious” that the two groups are “part of a broader campaign coordinated by some statewide entity.” He cited this article, published by NJ.com late in the day, that reported the Latino Coalition’s involvement in efforts to thwart expansions by two charter schools in Franklin Township, in Somerset County.
Wayne Woolley, the founder of Fair Schools Red Bank, responded that the group “is not connected with any other school advocacy group and is not involved in any effort beyond fighting for fair funding for the Red Bank Public Schools.”
He said the group “partnered with the Latino Coalition in the civil rights complaint because of relationships that developed between the coalition and the school community during opposition to the previous Red Bank charter school expansion” in late 2015 and early 2016.
The Department of Education denied that expansion request a year ago.
Woolley added that “the accusation that someone outside of Red Bank is pulling the strings would have far more credibility if it didn’t come from a public relations practitioner who is collecting $3,300 tax dollars a month to spread misinformation and wild conspiracy theories – and apparently to market his services to other charter schools.”
Argote-Freyre said that after the Red Bank complaint was filed in November, the Freehold-based Latino Coalition was contacted for assistance by parent groups across the state, and has since filed complaints against the Unity Charter School in Morristown and the two Franklin schools, and is working on a complaint in Princeton.
In each case, he said, “parents in these communities asked us to help them organize and challenge segregated charter schools.”
The coalition, he said, “is an organization with contacts and allies across New Jersey. We don’t need anyone else to coordinate our efforts. This is ironic coming from a representative of a statewide media company that works as a hired gun for whatever group pays him. All the members of the Latino Coalition are volunteers.”