Wendie Leweck has experienced myriad emotions during her quest to bring a charter school to the Seacoast, from excited to exhausted.
Last week, however, after the New Hampshire Board of Education voted to suspend the charter school approval process, the Exeter resident — founder of Friends of the Seacoast High School for the Arts — felt something different.
“It was like a dart in the heart,” said Leweck. “I am beyond disappointed. We have been working on making this school a reality for three years now, and from what I'm told, we would have been going before the Board of Education next month. And now this.”
The board voted Wednesday to adopt a moratorium on authorizing new charter schools because funding had dried up. At a meeting in Whitefield, Deputy Education Commissioner Paul Leather told board members that eight new charter schools were approved over the last two years, causing the state to exceed charter school spending by $5 million. One of those schools, the Mill Falls Charter School, is in the Union Leader Corp. building in Manchester.
In a memo posted on the DOE website, state board Chairman Tom Raffio said: “One of the factors to be considered by the board is the 'annual budget, including all sources of funding, and a projected budget for the next two years.' Given the current status of appropriations, this factor is the focus of the board's review.''
Roberta Tenney, administrator for the Office of School Standards in the state's Department of Education, whose office oversees charter schools in New Hampshire, said: “This is about resources. It's not about charters. We are very excited about the charters that are opening this fall and the opportunities they present for students.”
Matt Southerton, director of the New Hampshire Center for Innovative Schools, called the vote “shocking.''
“To my knowledge, no one in the charter community knew this was coming,” he said in an email.
“We knew that the board members had concerns about the resources, but we didn't realize the depth of their concerns,” said Tenney. “Opening a school isn't easy. It's complicated and difficult. The board was doing what they felt was the responsible thing to do. They don't want to OK something that is doomed to fail.”
Currently, 1,663 students are enrolled in charter schools across the state, according to the Education Department. Each charter school receives about $5,450 in state funds per student. According to Michelle Gauthier, an assistant in the DOE's charter school program, at the time of the board's vote on Wednesday, state officials were aware of 15 new charter school proposals being floated by New Hampshire residents. Gauthier said her office had received actual paperwork for seven of those.
Karin Cevasco, who heads a group looking to open the Gate City Charter School for the Arts in Nashua, feels she got the run-around from state Education Commissioner Virginia Barry's office regarding her proposal.
“We spent more than 2,000 hours on this, went through the whole application process,” said Cevasco. “We believed the last step we needed was a meeting with the commissioner. I kept calling, trying to schedule one, but was told that someone was out on vacation this week, someone else was out that week, and it never happened. It seemed strange; I know it's summer and there's vacations, but no one could meet with us for a half an hour on this?”
The moratorium has left the future of many proposed charter schools uncertain.
“I had to send out a notice to over 100 parents, letting them know that we might not be able to open on time,” said Cevasco, who targeted a September 2013 opening for her school. “I've heard back from a few already, and they are really upset. They were counting on this school.”
“We have to hope for the best and plan for the worst,” said Sandra Tremblay, who leads a group looking to open the Innovative Futures Technical Academy in the Dover area. “We are going to keep moving full speed ahead on this though. We have put too much time and energy into it to stop now.”
“It was a complete shock to us,” said Cheryl Bean, a member of the Southern New Hampshire MicroSociety Charter School Exploratory Group, which hopes to open a school in the Nashua area in 2014. “We were planning an informational night on Tuesday (7 p.m., Nashua Public Library), which we are still going to have. But now we need to figure out what we are going to do next. There's a lot of support in the community for these schools.”
Joe Crawford, an assistant principal at the Gilbert H. Hood Middle School in Derry, was part of the team that submitted a proposal to open an alternative high school in that town in 2014. He thinks it was one of the last charter school proposals to be approved.
“We haven't been told otherwise,” said Crawford. “We met with the commissioner in June, and it was OK'd, so I think that means we are approved.”
Leather said on Thursday that charter schools can still be approved if they get local funding.
“That's an option we will look at,” said Leweck. “The dream isn't dead.''
State education officials say the moratorium had been in the works for some time. Raffio said the education board began discussing the charter school budget shortfall in the spring, then delved into the problem at a meeting in July.
House Finance Committee member Rep. Will Smith, R-New Castle, said there will be a meeting Tuesday with Department of Education officials about the issue.
“We are researching to see if the board has the authority to put a moratorium on or if that's the Legislature's responsibility,'' Smith said. “Education, particularly charter schools, is a high priority for this Legislature.''
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Paul Feely may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.