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October 14. 2012 9:07PM

Charter school supporters say they’ll turn out in force at State Board of Education meeting in Concord

CONCORD — Close to 100 charter school advocates are expected at the state Board of Education meeting this week, hoping to sway officials to reconsider a moratorium on new school applications. But the board’s chairman says no new schools will get the green light until 2013 at the earliest.

“We expect a large group to come before us at the meeting,” said Board of Education Chairman Tom Raffio. “We will listen, we will let them have their say. But there won’t be any motions to accept any new applications that day, and we won’t until the new Legislature is seated in January and begins to work on the budget.”

Wednesday’s meeting gets under way at 9 a.m. in Room 15 of the New Hampshire Department of Education building (Londergan Hall), 101 Pleasant St., Concord.

The New Hampshire Board of Education voted last month to enact an indefinite moratorium. 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.

In recent weeks, nearly 200 have signed an online petition asking board members to reconsider their decision. The petition was created by Karin Cevasco, who heads a group looking to open the Gate City Charter School for the Arts in Nashua. It reads, in part, “We request that the New Hampshire Legislature increase the total amount of funding available to support the increased demand for Public Charter Schools. There is a demand in New Hampshire for Public Charter Schools. Parents want innovation and creativity for their children. Students want to be challenged, stimulated, and engaged in a learning environment that meets their needs and promotes academic success. In 2010, the federal government awarded the state of New Hampshire an $11.6 million grant which would provide start-up funding for several new schools. The state of New Hampshire had set a goal of opening 20 new charter schools with the help of this money. The new moratorium placed on charter school approval puts several million dollars of this grant money in jeopardy.

“We hereby ask that the New Hampshire State Legislature increase the overall budget to support the increasing number of students demanding quality education through Public Charter Schools. We hereby request that the New Hampshire State Board of Education reverse its moratorium on Public Charter Schools.”

School choice

Supporters of the petition say school choice is one of the top reasons they want more charter schools in the state.

“School choice is vital to improving education in this country,” said Kelly Bellemare of Bedford. “The Gate City Charter School will provide a wonderful opportunity for those who value the importance of the arts in education. Multi-age classrooms are a fantastic way to facilitate learning and provide a truly individualized learning experience. We must support the charter schools impacted by the board’s misguided decision to place a moratorium on new charters.”

“Our schools in Manchester are in disarray,” said Diane Ketchum of Manchester. “We need commitment to our schools for all the children in New Hampshire.”

Raffio said he sympathizes with charter school supporters, and counts the members of the board among them.

“There’s this feeling out there that the Board of Education is against charter schools,” said Raffio. “That’s not the case. As a board, we’ve approved 17 of them, with an 18th opening in Derry in 2013. We support charter schools and what they stand for, but the money has to be there. What if we approve a school, it opens, then closes after one semester? How does that benefit anyone?”

Asking for more

Last week, Associate Attorney General Anne Edwards said charter school state aid used to be open-ended, which means if the state board approved new charter schools, the money would be there to pay the state tuition aid of approximately $5,450 per student.

The last budget approved by the current Legislature capped the amount of aid for charter schools, but did provide a fix by allowing the Department of Education to go before the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee and the Governor and Executive Council to ask for additional funding, something it is expected to do this month to help cover the state’s obligation this fiscal year to the 17 existing charter schools. The $10 million appropriation is about $5 million short of what the state needs to pay this fiscal year.

If any new charter school were to be approved before the state budget is set in June 2013, the department would have to ask for additional money. Raffio said if the new charter school applications in the pipeline were approved by the board, about $25 million would be needed.

“If the meeting later this month goes well and the funding is approved, that’s a good first step,” said Raffio. “Then, if the legislators that support charter schools are reelected, that’s another good step. That would suggest that the support would be there during the budget process to appropriate the funds. If the indications are that the money could be there in June, then maybe in January we would be ready to start looking at some of the applications.”

New Hampshire Union Leader State House Bureau Reporter Garry Rayno contributed to this report.

pfeely@unionleader.com


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