Public Expresses Opinions on Charter School Application

August 8, 2014

by Barbara O’Brien

On July 1, the Educational Choices Foundation presented the Windham School Board with its application for a local charter school, an entity now known as Windham Academy. On August 5, the public got the chance to express its opinions on the proposal.

The first to speak on the topic was former State Senator Jim Rubens (R), who was the author of state legislation regulating charter schools in New Hampshire. That legislation was passed 20 years ago. Rubens, who served as a state senator from 1995 to 1999, is currently seeking a seat in the United States Senate, but did not mention his candidacy during the hearing.

Rubens, who is from Etna, N.H., said he wasn’t at the hearing to advocate for the Educational Choices Foundation, but to provide basic information on charter schools. Charter schools are a part of the public school system, he said, adding that there are currently 22 approved charter schools in New Hampshire.

“Each one is very different,” Rubens said, adding that each of them is over-subscribed and, as a result, students are selected by a lottery. Rubens described charter schools as a “tool” for change and for solving problems. In many instances, he said, charter schools have served to lower a school district’s special education costs. Charter schools are not allowed to go to voters for construction bonds and must pursue grants and fundraisers for such projects. “A charter school strengthens the overall school district,” he said. Charters are up for renewal every five years, and administrators are held accountable for student achievement, Rubens explained. Rubens suggested that school board members take the time to visit several charter schools before making a decision on whether or not to approve the application put forth for Windham Academy.

There are two routes that those proposing a charter school can take: either to first seek local school district approval and then get state approval or to go directly to the State Department of Education for approval. In this case, the Educational Choices Foundation chose to present its application to the local school board. School board members must make a decision no later than September 15 of this year. If the school board does not approve the application, the ECF has the right to appeal that decision to the State Board of Education. If the school board approves the application, and it is, subsequently, approved by the state, the issue is then put on the school district ballot. According to School District Attorney Gordon Graham, if the voters say “no,” then the issue is dead.

While some residents who came to the podium were adamantly in favor of a charter school being opened in Windham, others were completely opposed. Generally, however, many who spoke expressed uncertainty about how Windham Academy would affect the school district as a whole and taxpayers in particular.

Daniel Popovici-Muller, who emigrated from Romania to Massachusetts and then moved north of the border to Windham, because of the excellent school system and “The Live Free or Die” motto, said he wants the school board to continue exploring the idea of a charter school, stating that he believes having more than one school from which to choose is a benefit. “Competition is good,” Popovici-Muller said. “Different schools should focus on different aspects of education. Nobody will be forced to send a child to the charter school. It’s a matter of choice.”

State Representative Kevin Waterhouse agreed with Popovici-Muller. “Ditto,” Waterhouse said. “One size does not fit all.” “Windham Academy would be a win/win for Windham; a great opportunity,” he added. Waterhouse said he believes the proposed charter school would save taxpayers money “and attract the very best folks” to Windham.

Pastor Mark Brockmeier did not agree, however. Brockmeier cautioned school administrators to perform due-diligence before allocating any public tax dollars to a charter school. Why does Windham need a charter school? he asked, noting that, generally, charter schools are created when parents feel the school where their children go is dangerous, or has poor teachers or an inferior curriculum. “None of this exists in Windham,” Brockmeier said. Brockmeier is a former Windham School Board member. “There is nothing broken here,” he continued. “The charter school initiative is a hammer looking for a nail.” Furthermore, Brockmeier said, “It is beyond reason to consider this proposal without knowing where it will be built.”

Asking members of the Educational Choices Foundation to be transparent, Brockmeier said he believes the intended location is a building on Route 128 being built by Tom Murray, a local contractor who has been involved with the charter school proposal from the beginning. Initially, comments were made at public meetings about Murray’s building being the choice site, but later ECF members said no decision had been reached.

Brockmeier also pointed out a section of the charter application that stated Windham Academy would be “non-secular,” which, according to Brockmeier, means it would be religious in nature. “Religious education should occur in churches and at home,” Brockmeier said, not in public schools. Brockmeier also commented about a section of the charter application that would set aside a certain number of student slots for children related to those who founded and would administrate Windham Academy. This is too much like a private school, he said. “We are people of freedom, choice and equal opportunity,” Brockmeier said.

Sean Donahue, who is also a member of the ECF later clarified that the term “non-secular” had been included by mistake. Donahue said it had originally read “non-religious” and when he changed the wording he had meant to put “secular” but had mistakenly left in the prefix “non.” “The school board needs to assure that the charter school application is in the best interests of students,” Brockmeier concluded. “I urge the board not to recommend” the charter, he said.

Former school board member Stephanie Wimmer questioned the assertion that a charter school would have no negative impact on the Windham School District. Wimmer said she was concerned that there would be additional costs to transport Windham students to the charter school, as well as the loss of state adequacy aid for the approximate 300 students Windham Academy is proposed to house. Wimmer said this loss could amount to $3 million per year, a figure that Chris Baker, an ECF member, contested. “We are proposing a cost-saving solution,” Baker insisted.

Resident Danielle Stuttgart said she is concerned about the lack of collaboration between the school board and the ECF. Stuttgart said she foresees too many financial risks; too many unknowns to take a chance on the proposal. Stuttgart said she didn’t like the idea of giving so much money to the charter school, then having no say over how it is spent. “That scares me,” she said.

Cheryl Yennaco described herself as being part of a Charter School family. “It was a choice,” she said, one she doesn’t regret making. Yennaco urged school board members to speak to some parents of charter school students before making a decision on the application.

Laura Bellaviere said she supports having a choice, but doesn’t feel that enough information has been provided for either the school board or residents to make an informed choice. “I feel as if we’re being rushed” to make a decision, she commented. Belleviere also said she doesn’t see the charter school as “a guaranteed” solution for the school district’s over-crowding, as the 300 children who might enroll in Windham Academy wouldn’t be from one or to grade levels, but across the board from grades one through eight.

Former school board member Beth Valentine agreed. “The most profound problem is capacity and the charter school is not going to solve that,” she said. “Instead of pulling money out of the school district, we should be putting more money into it.” “To put money elsewhere would be doing a disservice to the 2,600 students remaining in the school district.”

Rich Amari complimented the teachers, administrators and curriculum employed by the Windham School District, but also said he would like to see students challenged even more, especially in the areas of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), which is proposed as the focus for Windham Academy. “Why are we so afraid of change, especially when it comes to money?” Amari asked. “Education is going down the tubes in this country,” Amari said. As for solving the capacity issues for the school district, however, Amari, who is on the facilities committee, said the charter school wouldn’t accomplish that task.

“Charter schools don’t scare me. Change doesn’t scare me,” resident Sara Harrigan, a former charter school teacher, said. “What I’m concerned about is the speed with which this is moving forward.” The school board needs to perform more due diligence before reaching a decision, she said.

Following the two-hour public hearing, school board Chairman Jerome Rekart told residents that their comments and questions weren’t falling on deaf ears. “We have a lot of work ahead of us,” Rekart said. “This is about more than choice.” “We’re not going to rush into this, but we will decide by September 15.”

School board member Rob Breton said that he’s certainly willing to sit down with members of the ECF and discuss the issue thoroughly. “I believe there should be collaboration,” Breton said, adding that there shouldn’t be competition between the Windham School District and Windham Academy.

School board member Michael Joanis said he’s still trying to identify what the problem is that the charter school thinks needs to be solved. Joanis said he’s also concerned about whether or not the curriculum for Windham Academy aligns with that being used in the school district, noting the possibility of students coming and going between the two entities. “I would prefer to invest in the school district as it stands today,” Joanis said.

School board member Ken Eyring said he believes a charter school will serve to enhance the prestige of the community. “There will be huge benefits,” he said. The final choice should be left up to the voters, Eyring stated, adding that there is plenty of time for discussions and informational sessions between now and the election next March.

Vice-chairman Dennis Senibaldi said he would like to see school administrators and board members reach out to other charter schools and the ECF in a sense of cooperation. “I like the idea of choice,” Senibaldi said, adding that he hadn’t made up his mind, one way or the other, about the charter application. Senibaldi said more financial data needs to be presented before he can make a decision.

The next session regarding the charter school application is set for Tuesday, August 19, beginning at 7 p.m. at Windham High School. It is anticipated that more financial information will be presented during that meeting. This meeting will be open to the public.