WHEN JEFF RILEY was named state education commissioner a year ago this month, he vowed to try to heal the divisions that have plagued the education world — between charter school advocates and foes, between those in favor of high-stakes testing and those looking to end the state’s testing regime.
In his first big stab at peacemaking, Riley unveiled a novel proposal Monday night as a solution to an acrimonious battle that had been unfolding between a New Bedford charter school and city leaders there who strongly opposed the school’s expansion application to the state.
The plan would allow the Alma del Mar Charter School to expand, but only with a little more than one-third the number of seats the school was originally seeking — 450 rather than 1,188. The city will, in turn, make available at no cost a currently shuttered New Bedford school building, the former Horatio A. Kempton Elementary School, to house a new campus of the charter school.
The new K-8 Alma del Mar school would agree to only enroll students from the neighborhood surrounding the school building, rather than fill seats through a citywide lottery, as called for in the state’s existing charter school law. The city would integrate enrollment in the new charter school with its district sign-up process, which would be the first time a charter school and district system have merged their enrollment systems.
“In a time of great polarization, it’s heartening to see folks come together and work on behalf of who matters most, I hope, to all of us, which is our students,” Riley said in unveiling the proposal at a special meeting of the state’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Riley, New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell, and Will Gardner, the executive director of Alma del Mar, have co-signed a letter of intent signaling their support for the proposal.
Mitchell, who had vociferously opposed the school’s expansion proposal, called the plan a good way forward for everyone. “This is a fairer way to do charter schools — fairer to cities, fairer to taxpayers, and fairer to students in district schools,” Mitchell said on Monday night.
“We’re excited to create another high performing K-8 school that provides more New Bedford kids with access to an Alma education while working in partnership with the city and school district,” Gardner said in a statement released by the state education department.
New Bedford Superintendent Thomas Anderson also applauded the agreement. “I view this outcome as an optimal compromise for all of us to grow as we prioritize the education of New Bedford schoolchildren,” he said in a statement.
Louis St. John, president of the New Bedford Educators Association, said the union opposes any charter school expansion in the city. “The New Bedford Educators Association is against adding even a single seat to charter schools,” he said in an email. “Charters are really private schools that use public funds, and they do not help us address the needs of every student for a high-quality public education.”
Alma del Mar, which opened its original K-8 charter school in New Bedford eight years ago, submitted a proposal to the state last summer to add 1,188 new seats, a plan that would have involved opening two new K-8 schools in the city. The plan was bitterly opposed by city and district school leaders, led by Mitchell, who called the plan “unreasonable” and said it would have a devastating impact on the city’s already shaky school funding. Education funding follows students to whatever school they attend, and local officials have said charters destabilize municipal and district school finances.
“I want to see kids have the greatest and broadest opportunities that we can make available to them,” Mitchell said in August, “but this is, at the end of the day, a zero sum proposition for cities that are financially constrained.”
“I hate to sound pessimistic about it, but there aren’t easy solutions,” he said at the time.
The solutions may not be easy, but intensive discussion in recent weeks among officials in Riley’s office, New Bedford school district leaders, the mayor’s office, and Alma del Mar produced the potential resolution to the pitched battle.
Riley said at Monday’s meeting that the proposal would require approval by the Legislature of a home-rule petition to allow for the novel approach to charter enrollment limited to a specific city neighborhood. He plans to flesh out a more formal proposal this week and present a motion for the state education board to consider at its meeting on January 22.
Mitchell said having the new charter serve a defined neighborhood will put the school on a more even footing with the district. Citywide charter lotteries, he said, tend to draw students from more well-off families across a community.
Riley said he has briefed New Bedford’s legislative delegation on the proposal, and he said Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration “has signaled they’re supportive.”
The Alma del Mar expansion application was looming as the most contentious charter school decision since the highly charged 2016 ballot question campaign in which voters sounded rejected a proposal to expand charter schools.
Paul Sagan, the chairman of the state education board, signaled hope that the agreement might create a new way forward in dealing with often polarizing charter school decisions.
“This could be a real breakthrough moment,” said Sagan, “not just for New Bedford but for the state.”
Bruce Mohl contributed to this report.