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Amherst school board pursues TM vote opposing Chinese charter school expansion

  • Members of the Amherst School Committee on Sept. 12, 2017, discussing a warrant article to submit to Town Meeting opposing the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School’s proposed expansion. —DUSTY CHRISTENSEN



@dustyc123
Tuesday, September 12, 2017

AMHERST — The School Committee has unanimously approved a warrant article to submit to Town Meeting opposing the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School’s proposed expansion.

Tuesday’s vote sets up a similar showdown to last year, when town education officials publicly fought the Hadley charter school’s application to increase its enrollment by 452 students. The state’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted down that request in a 7-2 decision in February, but the charter school announced in August that it has again applied for the expansion.

“Really, what this comes down to is … our current school funding formula basically pits charter schools against traditional public schools that are already struggling to make ends meet,” committee Vice Chairwoman Anastasia Ordonez told the Gazette ahead of the meeting.

Ordonez was in large part referring to the fact that state lawmakers have not fully funded charter school reimbursements for sending districts in recent years.

When the school funding formula is fully funded, the state is supposed to reimburse school districts for 100 percent of net increased tuition costs in the first year that a district student goes to a charter school and 25 percent for the next five years. Lawmakers, however, have since 2012 only reimbursed most of a student’s first year.

Richard Alcorn, the Chinese Immersion Charter School’s executive director, also raised the issue of school funding in responding to the School Committee’s vote Tuesday.

“The real issue here is the way schools are funded in Massachusetts,” Alcorn wrote in a statement to the Gazette ahead of the School Committee’s vote. “I personally support efforts to increase funding for all public schools as outlined by the Foundation Budget Commission’s recommendations and hope all public schools, including charter schools, can work together to support all kids.”

Alcorn was referring to a state commission charged with reviewing the formula used to calculate the cost of educating a Massachusetts student. That commission found in 2015 that the so-called “foundation budget” doesn’t accurately take into account the costs of things like health insurance, special education and educating English language learners.

Nonbinding vote

Ordonez said the purpose of the resolution, if approved at Town Meeting, is to demonstrate community sentiment ahead of the state education board’s decision on the charter school expansion. She acknowledged, however, that the state board will decide the issue, and is not required to heed a vote by Amherst Town Meeting.

Ordonez, along with board members Phoebe Hazzard, Eric Nakajima and Peter Demling, approved the resolution. Board member Vera Douangmany Cage was absent.

The resolution also includes a handful of other charges, including that the charter school is failing to educate all comers to the financial detriment of its sending districts, and that Amherst’s payments to the charter school could more than double if the expansion is allowed.

In his own response, Alcorn mentioned his and others’ efforts to work within the Amherst school system to provide a Chinese immersion option for students.

“It is historically noteworthy to point out that the founders of PVCICS spent years unsuccessfully working with the Amherst Public Schools to create a Chinese immersion thread,” Alcorn wrote, adding that Town Meeting previously failed to support a warrant article to create a Chinese immersion program in Amherst public schools.

Only after those efforts failed did they successfully apply to create a Chinese immersion charter school, he said.

Kathleen Anderson, a former school committee member and president of Amherst’s NAACP chapter, herself made that same point during the public comment period at a Tuesday meeting of the Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee, suggesting it would have been less expensive for the district to have a Chinese immersion program rather than now paying for students to leave for the charter school.

The state’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education is likely to take up the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School’s expansion request early next year.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.