Chinese immersion charter school sues state over expansion denials

  • Richard Alcorn, executive director of the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School, Tuesday in front of the school in Hadley. SARAH CROSBY

Staff Writer
Published: 7/23/2019 11:36:45 PM

HADLEY — The Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School is suing the state’s education board over its past decisions to deny the school’s expansion requests.

The school’s trustees filed the lawsuit Tuesday in Hampshire Superior Court. It names as defendants the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and its members, who voted June 25 to deny the school’s 2018 request to increase its maximum enrollment from 584 students to 952 students.

That was just the latest proposed expansion denied by the state board. In 2016, 2017 and 2018, the school applied for expansions and was denied. In their lawsuit, the school’s trustees say they were “inexplicably, unfairly, arbitrarily and capriciously” denied by the state.

“Since 2016, Defendants have subjected PVCICS to a literal merry-go-round of unfair and arbitrary processes in which factors not permitted to be considered in connection with PVCICS’s requests for increased enrollment have been considered,” the lawsuit reads.

The lawsuit goes on to say that the education board has presented the school with “ever-shifting requirements” that don’t take into account its unique language immersion program and the demand for kindergarten-level seats at the school.

The lawsuit describes the education board’s latest denial as a “final agency decision,” which means the school “has exhausted its administrative remedies.”

Jacqueline Reis, a spokeswoman for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, did not respond late Tuesday to an email request for comment on the litigation. Richard Alcorn, the school’s executive director, also could not be reached Tuesday evening.

The Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School has made eight expansion requests since it opened in 2007, according to a June memo from the state’s education commissioner, Jeffrey Riley. The state has approved one request: a 2013 application to increase enrollment and add high school grades. 

After declining in January to recommend the latest expansion request to the education board, Riley explained in the June memo why he made his decision: “Over its 12-year history, PVCICS has consistently fallen short of its annual enrollment projections and its maximum enrollment, and it currently enrolls 55 students fewer than its maximum enrollment.

“Based on the lack of compelling evidence that the school can maintain sustained enrollment under the proposed growth plan it submitted as part of the 2018 request, I did not recommend the request,” he concluded.

But in its lawsuit, the school is challenging that conclusion. The lawsuit alleges that Riley did not take into account the demand for kindergarten seats at the school or the school’s growth plan that is based on that kindergarten-level demand.

The lawsuit also alleges that in previous denials, the education board inappropriately considered factors that were “irrelevant to the merits of PVCICS’s application,” including the protests of surrounding school districts worried about the financial impact that the Chinese immersion school’s expansion would have on their budgets.

“Simply put, surrounding wealthy communities did not wish to see school funds lost to a charter school,” the lawsuit reads. “Such a ‘factor,’ however, is not part of the criteria to be considered with respect to a request to increase the enrollment cap of a charter school.”

In 2016, then-education commissioner Mitchell Chester recommended approval of the school’s similar request to expand to 952 students. But the education board voted down that request in February 2017.

In a March 2017 letter confirming that denial, the director of the state’s Office of Charter Schools and School Redesign told the school not to apply for expansion again until it addressed several of the board’s concerns. Among those concerns were that the school had not reached its maximum enrollment, and that it had “higher rates of attrition of students with disabilities than other schools within its charter region.” 

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.
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