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Monday, January 2, 2012

Charter school update to go before Nashua school board next week

NASHUA – Superintendent Mark Conrad will make another push next week for spending $15,525 on an education consulting firm, as the district moves forward with the development of a charter school.

At a meeting Monday, Jan. 9, members of a 20-person committee are scheduled to give the Board of Education an update on the work they have done so far to craft a mission for the charter school. The committee has been meeting since the fall, working on narrowing the focus for the school, which wouldn’t open until the fall of 2013 at the earliest.

As part of that discussion, Conrad will ask board members to approve a contract with 2Revolutions, a New York-based firm that specializes in developing different approaches in education. The proposal for the contract got a cold reception from some board members last month, questioning the need. The contract, which was tabled, is for $15,525 for three months of consultation.

Conrad said 2Revolutions would be able to provide the district access to a database of practices being implemented at other schools across the country.

“We can move forward without the firm, but it would enhance the process significantly,” he said.

The process for developing a district-sponsored charter school began last year with a broad proposal from Conrad about the opportunity to create a laboratory, of sorts, for new approaches to education without the constraints of traditional public schools.

Some Board of Education members have been openly skeptical about dedicating resources and time to creating a charter school in the district, But Conrad maintains the school will provide a venue for innovative teaching methods and practices. The goal, he said, is to take what works at the charter school and use it across the district, benefiting all students.

The goal is to have a charter proposal before the Board of Education by June, Conrad said. If the Board of Education approves it, the next year would be spent preparing for the school to open in the fall of 2013.

Nashua is the first large, urban school district in New Hampshire to pursue sponsoring a charter school, one of two ways a charter school can be created in the state.

The other way, which is more common, is for an independent group to create a charter school. That method led to the creation of the area’s only charter school, the Academy of Science and Design in Merrimack.

The Nashua charter school would be opened to students in the district who fall within the grade range. If interest were to exceed capacity, a lottery would be held to decide which students get in.

If the Board of Education approves the charter school, it would be eligible for up to $500,000 from an $11.6 million federal grant New Hampshire received to help pay for starting new charter schools. That money is intended to help with start-up costs.

The district still has a long way to go, with several questions about governance, location and enrollment yet to be hashed out. Regarding governance, Conrad said the charter school would have a board of trustees operating the school, which would mean the Board of Education’s only authority would be in the approval of the charter in June.

The trustees would be appointed as part of the charter application approved by the Board of Education. That would mean the elected Board of Education would not have authority over spending, hiring and policy decisions at the charter school.

Because it would be publicly funded, Conrad said information about how money is being spent would still be available for inspection, but the decisions would not be made by elected officials.

“The transparency is there, but it’s a separate budget with a separate organization,” Conrad said.

Another question is whether teachers at the school will be able to unionize.

Conrad has said the school would be free from constraints in the teachers contract. In a questionnaire sent out by the Nashua Teachers Union, Bob Hallowell, president of the Board of Education, said charter schools should be union-free.

Bob Sherman, president of the Nashua Teachers Union, is on the charter development committee. He believes teachers who choose to work at the school should be able to organize because it is still a public school.

“I would make the assumption there must be some protection of the rights and the benefits that would attract current teachers to move from the current school system into a charter situation,” Sherman said last month.

Michael Brindley can be reached at 594-6426 or mbrindley@nashuatelegraph.com.