Tuesday, November 15, 2011

School Has a Charter, Students and a Strong Opponent: Its District

 I don't know if I've ever seen a more extreme case of a district fighting a charter school – what a disgrace!

Charter schools, publicly financed but independently operated, have encountered fierce resistance in many suburban communities, criticized by parents and traditional educators who view them as a drain on resources.

But since the Amani Public Charter School won state approval to open this year, officials at the Mount Vernon City School District have taken that opposition to a new level.

The district, in Westchester County, sued the State Education Department and the Amani school this year, calling the approval an "arbitrary and capricious" decision, and sought to block Amani from moving forward. It has refused to turn over state, federal and local aid money to Amani, so the state has begun paying the charter directly. During the summer, district workers were sent to knock on the doors of Amani students to check that they lived in the district, a tactic that angered some parents. And in recent weeks, the district has delayed providing special education services to Amani students.

"I just wish I understood why we can't just play nicely," said Debra Stern, 45, Amani's executive director and a former president of the Mount Vernon PTA Council. "I have a lawsuit. I can't even walk through the Board of Education meetings. Why is there all this tension?"

Here's Peter Murphy's take:


Friday, November 04, 2011

No Money for Charter Students - but Plenty for Lawyer$

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Mount Vernon Schools Superintendent W.L. "Tony" Sawyer (pictured at right) is still hiding behind his lawyers as justification to violate state law to financially cripple the Amani Charter School that opened in the school district this year. The 80 fifth grade students attending that school are the victims of the superintendent's bad behavior, which has the blessing of the board of education.

This stood out to me in today's New York Times story on the new charter school in Mount Vernon, and kudos to Times' reporter Winnie Hu for shining the light on this injustice.

After nearly 15 years in the state's charter school movement from its inception, it never ceases to amaze me the capacity of grown-ups who wear suits to work to behave like bullies, especially toward young people. Superintendent Sawyer isn't the first one, but he stands out as among the worst.

Still Hiding Behind Lawyers to Violate Law
Dr. Sawyer and the school board don't have to like the existence of the Amani Charter School, which was approved by the state Board of Regents over their objections. But that doesn't give them indulgence to not pay the school what it is owed, including state and federal money that accrues to those students.

For all the school district's complaints about money, it sure has plenty to pay lawyers to make frivolous actions and give punitive advice. The superintendent's lawyers surely know the district's actions violate state law and must have advised accordingly, as even a third-rate lawyer would. But they also know that it's a risk-free violation with no sanction. Thus, Dr. Sawyer proceeds to deny the charter school its funding while disregarding every sentiment about putting children first.

Despite the Regents re-approval of the Amani Charter School, which negated the state trial court's "vacating" the original approval [see "SIDE-NOTE" below], the obsessive-compulsive board of education intends to pursue further legal action, according to its meeting two days prior (Nov. 2).

Anybody Home at the State?
What is missing from the Times' story is any comment or reaction from state officials at the Education Department regarding this lawless school district. The Department has acted as swiftly as the law provides to pay the charter school directly from state aid to Mount Vernon, but that process takes several weeks and has severely disrupted the school's operations. At a minimum, it would be nice for an Education Department spokesman to at least call out publicly Mount Vernon's illegal behavior and blatant defiance of an act of the Regents. Unless I missed it somewhere, nothing doing.

The Chalkboard has written previously regarding the Amani-Mount Vernon saga as another example of the weakness of the Charter Schools Act which lacks any sanction for a school district that illegally refuses to fund a charter school that is educating its resident students. At the very least, a school district's refusal to obey the law should come at a financial risk by empowering the Commissioner of Education to impose a financial penalty on the district itself. I doubt at that point the Mount Vernon officials or any other school district would take that risk.

The Regents should back a legislative proposal to give it more teeth against school districts to enforce the Charter Schools Act. Otherwise, districts like Mount Vernon will have free license to defy Regents action, and harm charter students as a result.

Peter Murphy
for The Chalkboard
Twitter: @PeterMurphy26
Facebook: Chalkboard Nycsa

SIDE-NOTE: The Times' story referenced some pin-head state Supreme Court Justice who last month "vacated" the Regents approval of the Amani Charter School, after which the board then promptly re-approved the school. In effect, the Regents "vacated" the court ruling (take that!). How many thousands of dollars the Mount Vernon school district splurged for its ultimately fruitless litigation is not yet known. The court ruling hid behind a technicality on the Regents' supposed failure to cite a specific provision of the Charter Schools Act to justify its approval of the school, which is absurd since every Regents' approval of a charter school includes in its resolution a finding that the school would fulfill the purposes of the Act itself. In the end, it didn't matter.


School Has a Charter, Students and a Strong Opponent: Its District

Published: November 3, 2011


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