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March 22. 2013 1:03AM

Charter school bill halted in House on party-line vote

CONCORD - Charter school advocates hit a roadblock in their efforts to open new schools in Nashua, Plymouth and the Seacoast this fall, after a party-line vote by the House Finance Committee on Tuesday to table a bill that would have ended a moratorium on new charters.

Matt Southerton, director of the New Hampshire Center for Innovative Schools, said the Finance Committee move was purely political and designed to give the House a bargaining chip in budget negotiations with the Senate in June.

Even if the Senate is able to salvage the bill in negotiations with the House, Southerton said, a decision would not come soon enough for new charter schools to open in September.

"In a very political move, the committee threw New Hampshire's children under the bus and decided to play Russian roulette with millions in federal funding," said Southerton.

The Finance Committee vote, with all 14 Democrats voting to table the measure and all nine Republicans opposed, came a week after a seven-member subgroup of the committee known as Finance Division II made a similar recommendation, also voting along party lines.

The subcommittee took up HB 299 on March 14, which had passed the House in a preliminary vote, with Southerton in the room and his video camera rolling. He later posted a video of the deliberations on YouTube, in which Finance Division II Chairman Daniel Eaton, D-Stoddard, is seen addressing Mark Joyce, executive director and treasurer of the state School Administrator's Association.

"Mark, let me give you a hypothetical, and this is purely a hypothetical. In theory, if the committee chose to moratorium future charter schools over the next biennium and on this bill, it was recommended but not funded, and the Senate at that point then chooses to put everything back, would that satisfy?" Eaton said.

"I'm looking at this as political. We have a big negotiation coming up in June and I'm trying to have a trump card or two and this is one, where it might be a very healthy trump card, particularly knowing the whims of the Senate, and particularly knowing the pressure the Senate will get. Do you think that would solve the issue?"

Joyce replied: "I think it's always dangerous for me to project what the strategy should be."

Southerton said he was astounded by the comments. "We were disgusted," he said. "We couldn't even believe we were watching that, and that he would say that with a video camera and tripod standing right there."

The video was the topic of a column in the New Hampshire Union Leader by columnist Charles Arlinghaus on March 19. Eaton did not return phone calls or emails seeking comment.

During the full Finance Committee meeting, the discussion focused mainly on whether the bill amounted to open-ended funding for charter schools, and therefore required more study.

Southerton said a federal grant to fund charter schools in the state only allows four to open each year, and that charter school expenditures can be accurately predicted, based on enrollment projections.

The state will is already likely to forfeit $2.7 million that would have been available to help charter schools start in August, with another $2.5 million at stake in the fall of 2014.

Charter schools are public schools whose students are chosen by lottery if there are more applications than space.

They usually have a particular emphasis, like science or fine arts.



dsolomon@unionleader.com


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