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September 24. 2012 10:18PM

Charter school moratorium perplexes many

CONCORD — Some New Hampshire lawmakers are concerned — and a little perplexed — about a state Board of Education decision to place an indefinite moratorium on approving additional charter schools in the Granite State.

The Board of Education approved the measure last week, saying the state did not have the funding to support new schools.

The decision has fired up charter school advocates and especially organizers with plans to open alternative schools, which hinge on state approval.

It also caught the attention of legislative members who attended a meeting Monday at the offices of the Network for Educational Opportunity, just a few blocks south of the Capitol.

“It could be a whole bunch of different reasons,” said Rep. Michael Balboni, chairman of the House Education Committee. “The bottom line is the numbers the Department (of Education) gave the board were woefully inadequate and the information that they provided to the board was woefully inadequate.”

House Finance Committee member Will Smith, R-New Castle, has a meeting with Department of Education officials scheduled for today.

Balboni said after Monday’s meeting it was his understanding that the funding was already budgeted; he questioned the board’s decision.

“It made no sense to me,” Balboni said. “I began to wonder if the board didn’t have all the information it needed to make a valid decision. Maybe they were given misinformation.”

Balboni encouraged those attending the meeting to write members of the DOE and school board, explaining how they think the moratorium is wrong and asking for it to be reversed. The next Board of Education meeting is scheduled for Oct. 17.

Kate Baker, executive director of the Network for Educational Opportunity, said the Legislature is responsible for the state budget, while the Board of Education’s responsibility is to evaluate charter applications on merit.

“Maybe it’s just an error,” Baker said. “Maybe they were confused about that and now they’ll see it more clearly and make the right decision.”

Charter school advocates have already started an online petition seeking reversal of the decision and met Monday to discuss what to do next.

Don Erdbrink, a board member of the Seacoast High School for the Arts, said the moratorium put his school’s plan in jeopardy because it had already agreed to lease a building.

That agreement will fall through without final approval coming from the state.

“There’s no oversight to the Board of Education to a decision that’s so obviously wrong?” Erdbrink asked during the meeting. “We’re like champing at the bit because we have this property and now we’re going to lose it if this doesn’t get turned around.”

The state has 11 charter schools, including Mill Falls Charter School, which opened this fall and operates out of the Union Leader Corp. building in Manchester.

Others, like Erdbrink’s, had preliminary approval and were in the process of finalizing the many details it takes to start a school.

Rep. Spec Bowers said the board decision and rationale behind it were confusing.

“When people put so much time and effort into this, just cutting it off like that, you don’t change the rules in midstream,” Bowers said. “It’s actually not at midstream. They’re almost on the other side.”

Board of Education Chairman Tom Raffio said last week that the board had researched the decision thoroughly before deciding on the moratorium.

“We support charter schools and are trying to find ways to make it work until the Legislature comes up with the money,” Raffio told the Union Leader. “We spent time with the Attorney General’s Office to make sure all our ducks were in a row. We did not try to spring this on anybody.”

Deputy Speaker of the House Pamela Tucker said Monday that the board’s decision could cost the state federal financing for startup costs, which would no longer be available if the state is blocking approval — with the exception of those already set up with local funding.

“I’m curious to see if the board really knew the ramifications of the decision — the loss of money that we would get at the federal level — because it’s going to be gone,” Tucker said. “We’ll lose that. And we’re always looking for more funding for schools because we want excellence in education in this state.”

dalden@unionleader.com


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