STATE HOUSE, BOSTON — The clock is ticking for lawmakers to act on a bill needed to execute a deal between New Bedford officials and a charter school that wants to expand in that city, according to Education Commissioner Jeff Riley.
Riley had previously expressed hope that the legislation, approved as a home rule petition by the New Bedford City Council on an 8-2 vote, would clear the Legislature in early May so a plan could be in place for the start of school in September. He told the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education on Tuesday that he and his department “understands now that Beacon Hill needs a little additional time.”
The bill, filed by Rep. Christopher Markey of Dartmouth and Rep. Paul Schmid of Westport, would allow the New Bedford School Committee to establish a neighborhood zone for a new campus of the Alma del Mar Charter School, and to transfer custody of a property at 135 Shawmut Ave. to the charter school.
In January, the state education board signed off on an agreement between Alma del Mar and New Bedford allowing Alma del Mar to open a new campus ultimately serving 450 more K-8 students at the city’s former Kempton Elementary School.
The board also approved a backup plan: if the parties did not reach agreement on implementation details and the necessary legislation does not pass, Alma del Mar would then be allowed to expand to 594 new seats. That number is half of what the school requested, and what Riley said he would have approved under the traditional charter expansion process.
Riley said Tuesday that there has been “positive communication … coming out of Beacon Hill” and the department now hoped to have a decision “one way or another” by the end of the month.
“We’re going to keep a close eye on it,” Riley said. “If the proposed petition is not enacted, obviously we’re going to need to kind of re-assign students back to New Bedford Public Schools, and the charter will take place as the 594 charter and they will use students from the lottery. My first priority is for the parents and students in the school system, so we’ll be making a decision in the coming weeks, sooner rather than later.”
Markey and Schmid’s bill (HD 4174) was filed on May 2 and referred to the House Rules Committee on May 13. Rules Committee Chairman William Galvin did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Markey said lawmakers will try to get the bill moving “over the next week or so.”
Asked if he felt a sense of urgency around acting on the bill, Markey said, “I think there is a need to do that, to satisfy the agreement and to make sure that students in New Bedford know where they’re going to be going to school next year.”
“I don’t know if we can fulfill the desires of the administration to get it done that quickly but we’re obviously working to get it done,” Markey told the News Service.
Markey described the deal between the school and the city as “a fair resolution to a matter that could have gotten a lot worse” and said he’s been hearing from people on both sides of the issue.
“I’ve been hearing from different people, as with all legislation — home rule petitions, whatever it is — we always hear from constituents who either strongly support it or are strongly against it or are just encouraged to see that something is getting done,” he said.
The Massachusetts Teachers Association, parents and local education activists earlier this month filed a lawsuit in Bristol Superior Court arguing that the expansion deal violates the “anti-aid amendment” to the state Constitution, which restricts public money from going to entities like schools that are not publicly owned and operated.
“This expansion scheme seeks to set a dangerous precedent for public education in the commonwealth,” lead plaintiff Ricardo Rosa said in a May 13 statement. “It also unfairly benefits the charter school industry at the expense of the education that my children — and all of the children in the New Bedford Public Schools — deserve and are entitled to receive.”
–Katie Lannan, State House News Service