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RI Education’s Biggest Battle is Playing Out at One School

Thursday, July 30, 2015

 

Three districts are embroiled in a court battle over the opening of a new charter school in Woonsocket in what is shaping up to become a major flashpoint in the state’s ongoing battle over education reform.

The future of education reform in Rhode Island came to a head earlier this year in the debate and passage—in the House, at least—of bill that would have limited the growth of charter schools. One would have allowed the opening of future charters only if there would be no negative financial impact on school districts. The other would have required the approval of city or town councils of participating communities.

Now the same battle is being re-fought intensely at the local level as Woonsocket—along with, potentially, Burrillville and North Smithfield—is seeking a court order to block the opening of the new RISE Prep Mayoral Academy, a kindergarten-through-eighth grade school. (RISE stands for Respect, Integrity, Self-Determination, and Excellence.)

The lawsuit, filed June 26 in Providence County Superior Court, alleges that the school did not satisfy the statutory and regulatory requirements for a charter and that the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) did not follow its own rules when it granted final approval by state authorities on June 9. (See below slides for specific charges.)

The lawsuit argues that the school failed to meet a number of basic technical requirements such as making an application deadline, having a certified school administrator, or declaring the location for the school.

The proposed administrator, Rosalind Murphy, was expected to have her certification by June. For the previous year she served as a fellow at Building Excellent Schools, an organization that trains leaders of charter schools. That followed upon three years of full-time teaching history at Revere High School in Massachusetts.

RISE announced its site as 1 Social Street in downtown Woonsocket, just days after the filing of the lawsuit.

Woonsocket worries over millions in lost funding

A key concern: as the school grows, it will result in a net cost of $2.4 million by the Woonsocket School District in five years, only now just recovering from severe financial distress.

The school will start small with just kindergarteners, adding one grade each year until it reaches the eighth. Eventually it will have a projected enrollment of 729 students—with about half coming from Woonsocket—and will have oversight of over $10 million in taxpayer funds. 

Acting Education Commissioner David Abbott and Murphy, the proposed head of RISE, both insisted that proper procedures had been followed in the approval of the new school without responding to most of the specific allegations in the lawsuit.

“Of course, the complaint speaks for itself and I cannot venture to guess why certain allegations were made,” Abbott wrote in an e-mail on Tuesday. “What I can tell you is that we at RIDE firmly believe that our process, as set forth in regulation, is fully consistent and compliant with state statute, and that said process was scrupulously followed in all respects during the vetting process for RISE.”

“The state application process was thorough, rigorous, and took place over a 14-month timeline. RISE Prep followed the process of applying for a state public charter school with full fidelity and has done everything in compliance with requirements and regulations,” Murphy told GoLocalProv.

Court filings on behalf of RIDE and RISE only make the case for dismissal, not the legitimacy of the charter itself. Those motions prompted a Superior Court judge last week to drop two plaintiffs—the Woonsocket Teachers’ Guild and the city School Committee—and add the North Smithfield and Burrillville town councils as parties. But the lawsuit itself has been allowed to proceed to an August 11 hearing on the request for a preliminary injunction against RISE.

Murphy said she understands the financial concerns Woonsocket has.

“The Woonsocket City Council is concerned about funding and I am in agreement that tweaks to the funding formula are necessary so that those of us tasked with providing quality education can do so most effectively,” she said.

But she also defended the basic concept behind the education funding formula: “The overall structure of money follows the child however is the fairest way to fund public education. Cities and towns allocate money to educate all of their public school students, not just those that attend traditional districts. The per pupil funds belong to the child, for their public education, not to one type of public school. Like every public school in Rhode Island, RISE Prep receives a per pupil amount for every child we educate.”

Woonsocket Superintendent Patrick McGee, who was on vacation, was unavailable for comment. Finance Director Brad Peryea and School Committee Chairman George Lacouture did not respond to requests for comment.

GoLocalProv has previously reported that a potential flaw in the education funding formula has caused charter schools to draw a disproportionate flow of money from the rest of the public schools in a district.

In theory, there should be no cost: under the still-new education funding formula the money is supposed to ‘follow the child’—meaning that the cost of educating a child is paid out to the charter in the form of tuition. Presumably, since the district no long is responsible for educating a charter-bound student, it does not lose money.

But, in practice, some school districts argue that there are certain fixed costs that do not follow the child. Because the current education funding formula does not correct for these fixed costs, these districts are said have lost $5.4 million to charter schools in fiscal year 2014.

New charter stalked by local political drama

Beyond financial concerns, the opening of the new charter has also been dogged by a mounting political drama.

In its original application materials, RISE said that Woonsocket Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt would serve as chair of its board. But Baldelli-Hunt stepped down from that role December 15, 2014 letter to then-Commissioner Deborah Gist. The lawsuit does not cite her reasoning and Baldelli-Hunt did not return a call seeking comment yesterday.

The lawsuit alleges that her replacement, Paulette Hamilton, the elected town administrator of North Smithfield, is not authorized to serve as chair. Under the town’s charter, Hamilton must have the approval of the town council to enter into a contract, which the lawsuit argues she has done by serving as chair.

Hamilton, who has denied the charge, did not respond to a request for comment.

At the time of the lawsuit’s filing, Hamilton was facing a recall movement in North Smithfield, with her involvement in RISE among one of the chief complaints among residents organizing the effort. One of the organizers is also the president of the union that represents the local school support staff. (The recall effort fell short of the needed signatures, according to Katelyn Silva, the Chief Communications Officer for the Rhode Island Mayoral Academies.) 

School founder dismisses lawsuit as ‘small cloud’

Silva also defended RISE yesterday.

“RISE Prep Mayoral Academy followed the State process for charter application and approval to the letter, that Rhode Island has one of the most strict and thorough authorization processes in the nation, and that RISE Prep is fully prepared to open in one month after an intense and lengthy readiness process,” she said.

By the time the lawsuit had been filed the school had already enrolled students and uniformed had been ordered, as the lawsuit itself notes. Both Silva and Murphy lamented the threat the lawsuit they said poses to the families of up to 81 incoming kindergarteners.

“This should be a time for our 5-year-old scholars to joyfully focus on what, for many, is their first public school experience! Instead, they and their parents are worried that they will be forced to leave the school they chose to go to a school they don't want to attend simply because their ZIP Code dictates it—and politicians are spending taxpayer money on a lawsuit to try to  force it. This would be tremendously disruptive and upsetting to our families,” Silva wrote in an e-mail.

She also noted that RISE has already hired its full staff and that professional development is scheduled to begin in a few days. “RISE Prep is bringing jobs by revitalizing a building in the downtown area of Woonsocket with a $400,000 investment. These are people’s lives and livelihood,” she said.

Murphy promised that the lawsuit would not get in the way of a scheduled August 31 opening.

“Our kindergarten scholars and their families are excited to begin in one short month. They have their uniforms, have been completing summer homework, and are gearing up for a school year that will further instill a love of learning in all of our scholars and we are honored to educate them. While this lawsuit has cast a small shadow on what is otherwise an incredibly exciting time for our school, our team and families are determined to open RISE Prep on August 31,” she said. 

Tips on potential corruption at the local or state level, misspending, abuse of power, and other issues of public interest can be sent to [email protected]. Follow Stephen Beale on Twitter @bealenews

Correction: A previous version of this article erroneously stated that Woonsocket Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt had cut ties with RISE Prep Mayoral Academy. In fact, she remains on the board but has just stepped down from her former role as chair. 

 

Related Slideshow: Charter School Lawsuit Charges

The lawsuit alleges that the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) did not follow proper procedures in approving the RISE Mayoral Academy. (RISE stands for Respect, Integrity, Self-Determination, and Excellence.) RISE is set to open this fall—unless its opponents prevail in court—and would serve students in kindergarten through eighth grade from Woonsocket, Burrillville, and North Smithfield. GoLocalProv reached out to state officials for a detailed response and was told that none was available. Instead, attorneys for the defendants have filed a motion arguing that the case should not be heard in court at all. Below are some of the key accusations and arguments made in the lawsuit, which was filed June 26 in Providence County Superior Court.

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1.

Deadline Missed

The RISE mayoral academy had an application deadline of December 1, 2014 in order to open for the 2015-2016 school year. According to the lawsuit, the school’s organizers did not file in time, in violation of state law.

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2.

Public Opposition

The lawsuit states that the law requires the state Council on Elementary and Secondary Education, which approves charter school applications, to evaluate the level of community support for RISE. The school committees and town councils of Woonsocket, Burrillville, and North Smithfield passed resolutions opposing RISE. In addition, 100 North Smithfield residents write letters in opposition, according to the lawsuit. 

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3.

Cost to School District

Charter schools like RISE are expected to result in a net loss of money to the Woonsocket School District. By 2020, the loss would amount to an annual $2.4 million, according to a March 19, 2015 letter from the Woonsocket Budget Commission that is cited in the lawsuit. 

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4.

Board Chair Controversy

Originally, Woonsocket Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt was supposed to serve as chair of the board for RISE—something that is a requirement of state law. But Baldelli-Hunt withdrew as board chair last December for undisclosed reasons, according to the lawsuit. 

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5.

Town Official Violation

After Baldelli-Hunt stepped down as chairman of RISE, the elected town administrator of North Smithfield Paulette Hamilton offered to replace her. The lawsuit claims that Hamilton is barred from doing so because she did not get permission from the town council, as required by its charter. “Defying this limitation on her powers, Ms. Hamilton has, in her position as an Town Administrator, decided to contract with RISE in a manner that will impose significant financial costs on North Smithfield,” the lawsuit states. 

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6.

Town Official Denial

North Smithfield Town Administrator Paulette Hamilton denies that she has violated the town ordinance in serving as board chairman for RISE. The ordinance bars her from unilaterally agreeing to a contract. But she asserts that there is no contract between North Smithfield and the new charter school.

“The allegations that I violated the charter are completely untrue. … I did not sign on, it was Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt who signed the papers to be the chair to get the establishment and the application. … My feet can’t be held to the fire,” Hamilton stated in an interview on the television show, State of Mind, which is cited in the lawsuit. 

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7.

State Auditor Review

RISE was supposed to get the green light from the state Auditor General. According to the lawsuit, “The Regulations state that ‘[t]o obtain final approval, applicants shall satisfactorily complete the following tasks: … (b) All applicants must have their project’s business plan, financial management procedures, and other relevant financial information reviewed by the Rhode Island Office of the Auditor General.’ …On June 23, 2015, the Office of the Auditor General confirmed that it had not completed this step and had no intention of doing so.”

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8.

Unlicensed Administrator

The administrator for RISE must be state-certified. However, the proposed school administrator, Rosalind Murphy, did not have her certification by June 9, 2015, when RISE approved her school’s application, according to the lawsuit. 

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9.

Secret School Site

One of the more basic requirements of the application process is that a school site be specified. “Even to this date, RISE has not publicly identified the building that will house the mayoral academy, much less from whom and under what terms and conditions it is to be provided,” the lawsuit states. (Just days after June 26 filing of the lawsuit, the location was announced as 1 Social Street in Woonsocket.)

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10.

Lawless Lottery

The lawsuit alleges that the lottery system that decides how students are enrolled in RISE is unlawful. While the system claims to be evenhanded, granting 50 percent of seats to urban students (from Woonsocket) and 50 percent to suburban students (from Burrillville and North Smithfield), it’s actually gives greater preference to suburban students because there will be fewer applicants from the two towns, according to the lawsuit. 

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11.

Burrillville Bumped

The board of directors for RISE must have representatives from each community, but there are none from Burrillville, according to the lawsuit. 

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12.

No Appeals

“RISE failed to ‘[p]rovide procedures by which teaching personnel and parents can legally challenge decisions of the governing board of the mayoral academy which do not conform to the mayoral academy’s charter’ as of December 1, 2014 as required by state law, and failed to do so even as of June 9, 2015,” the lawsuit states.

 
 

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