The Amherst School Committee voted last night to request Amherst Town Meeting’s assistance in fighting a possible expansion of Hadley’s Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School (PVCICS).
“Ultimately, what we’re asking is for another body in town to take this up as an official matter,” said member Anastasia Ordonez. She said the committee did receive feedback questioning whether Town Meeting should vote on the measure at all, or if the 240 elected representatives will pass it. However. she and others emphasized their strong wish to oppose the expansion first proposed last winter. Member Eric Nakajima said the charter school’s expansion would impact Amherst’s budget, and is therefore relevant for Town Meeting. “The expansion would have very specific long-term consequences,” Nakajima said.
Town Meeting has no direct ability to prevent the charter school’s proposed expansion, which will be voted on by the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education in coming months. However, at times, Town Meeting has taken stands on matters outside its direct control. Last spring, it supported a measure calling for investigation of President Donald Trump and whether his foreign business interests constitute a violation of federal law.
The PVCICS charter school now has about 470 students, including 122 who reside in Amherst. PVCICS is applying for the second time this year for the right to grow to a maximum of 1,036 students over a period years. The board rejected the school’s plan 7 to 2 last February, in part because of enrollment figures showing few students with special needs. At the time, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education recommended that PVCICS wait two years before re-applying for the expansion.
Standard public school systems lose money each time a child goes to a charter school instead. School Committee member Peter Demling said the Amherst elementary, middle and high schools are down $2.24 million because of tuition to PVCICS, a number that could reach nine percent of net school spending if the sending rate continues.
The School Committee’s warrant article for Town Meeting calls upon the state education board and its Acting Commissioner, Jeff Wulfson, to reject the charter amendment proposed by PVCICS. The committee revised the draft before voting on it last night, removing some language critical of PVCICS. The measure will come before Town Meeting at the fall session beginning Nov. 6.
Charter schools are required to use a lottery system for most admissions, although they can grant preference to siblings of existing students.
Demling and others criticized PVCICS for their 5.9 percentage of students with special needs, well below the 13 percent average for sending districts, 17 percent statewide, and Amherst’s 19 percent. Meanwhile, PVCICS’ low income students make up about 16 percent of total enrollment, less than half the sending districts’ 40 percent average.
“It shows a large gap,” Demling told the Amherst-Pelham Regional and Union 26 School Committees last night, proposing that they pass a resolution against the expansion. Demling said high-needs students are the most expensive to educate, and the special needs and low-income enrollment issues at PVCICS exaggerate the “already broken” charter school funding formula.
Committee member Audra Goscenski of Leverett warned against language that could appear to target PVCICS. “I see no benefit in waging a war with a particular school, so I want to be careful … that we do not criticize their ability to educate a child,” she said.
Officials in Amherst and other districts have said the state is chronically behind in its reimbursement obligations to standard public schools.
This past winter, PVCICS was subject to public criticism from some former parents, who maintained that the school had failed to provide sufficient supports for their children. The school, which has won praise for students’ high academic achievement, has argued that it has adequate services for those with special needs.
Amherst parents whose children now attend PVCICS spoke in defense of the school Monday night, and questioned why PVCICS is being “singled out” by the Amherst School Committee, when local children also attend Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter School in South Hadley, and the Hilltown Cooperative Charter School in Easthampton, among others. They questioned the committee’s wish to involve Town Meeting, saying the matter is outside its purview.
“There are other charter schools in this community,” said Dana Carnegie, parent of an 8th grader, who added that funds also leave Amherst to support Smith Vocational-Agricultural High School in Northampton.
School Committee members said that PVCICS has the most significant impact on Amherst’s budget, on which Town Meeting votes. It is the only area charter school seeking major expansion.
This article will be updated.