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Monday, January 23, 2012

Some on Nashua Board of Education not sold on charter plan

NASHUA – Several Board of Education members are still not convinced there is a need for a district-sponsored charter school, which could put the proposal in jeopardy.

“The charter effort is the wrong answer to the right question,” Board of Education member Tom Vaughan said at a meeting earlier this month.

A 21-person committee has been working since the fall to draft a vision for the charter school, which would open in the fall of 2013. At a meeting held Jan. 9, some of the broad ideas of the school were revealed, including having every teacher and student equipped with an electronic device, such as a netbook, laptop or iPad, for use in the classroom and at home.

The school would serve students in grades 4 through 8, but would offer more flexibility, allowing students to move through grades levels at their own pace using a competency-based approach.

But Vaughan and several other members on the board said there are still more questions than answers about why the district needs a charter school and why the innovative methods being considered for it can’t be used now in the city’s schools.

For member Kim Muise, she has questions still about governance and who will have authority over the school.

“Unless those questions have some really solid answers, I’m not sure I could support the concept,” Muise said.

The Board of Education will be responsible for approving the charter, so it won’t move forward without its support. But decisions about operation and spending will be left in the hands of an appointed board of trustees. That means the only authority the Board of Education would have would be to revoke the charter.

Muise doesn’t like the idea of public money being taken out of the hands of the elected Board of Education.

Board member Bill Mosher is uneasy about whether the time and resources being spent on developing the charter school will be worth it.

“I’m not satisfied with the whole thing until I get more details: what it’s going to be, how it’s going to work and who’s going to be in charge,” Mosher said.

Superintendent Mark Conrad, who has advocated for the idea of a district-sponsored charter school, said he understands the concerns being raised. He hopes to come back to the board soon with a more defined vision for the school. At that point, the board can decide whether it wants to continue with the idea.

“Right now, our focus is going to be on developing a program model we think can make a difference for our students,” Conrad said. “We’re going to take the time we need to come up with a program that makes sense.”

Conrad had hoped to get a charter proposal to the board by June, but said that time line may not be realistic now. He said it’s more important to get the concept right.

Not all members are opposed to the idea.

“I am very strongly in favor of a district-sponsored charter school,” board member David Murotake said. “But we do need to make sure that the high-level objectives are the right ones for us.”

Board of Education President Bob Hallowell said the tone at the meeting, held Jan. 9, was decidedly more negative than it had been in the past toward the charter school. Regardless of the outcome, Hallowell believes the conversation about what the district can do differently to meet the needs of students is worth having.

“I hope they don’t close their minds to the conversation because the words ‘charter school’ are in there,” Hallowell said.

Muise said she is keeping an open mind, but that doesn’t change her concerns about handing over control of the budget for the charter school to an appointed board of trustees. Muise is hoping to hear more from the public on how they feel about the idea for a charter school.

“This is a major change,” she said. “This is something that everyone has to be involved in.”

Vaughan said the root question should be how to increase or at least maintain the quality of instruction currently being offered, while facing diminishing resources. Vaughan doesn’t see a charter school solving that dilemma. If anything, it could put up more barriers and divide those who believe there should be union representation.

“There’s going to be fallout from that decision, however it’s made, and follow us for a long time,” Vaughan said. “I think it would make our budgeting a longer and more dreary process than it is right now. And it removes this board from any real substantive input on the direction of instruction in the district.”

Conrad said it is important to remember that enrollment in the charter school will be voluntary and that the cost per pupil would have to be equal to or less than the rest of the district.

Conrad has pulled off the table a $15,525 contract with an education consultant firm that would have spent the next three months working with the committee on narrowing the focus of the school. While Conrad said the firm would have helped in connecting the district to other successful learning models, it was obvious that several board members were not willing to spend the money.

“Their comments clearly indicated it would be a controversial conversation,” he said.

The committee drafting the charter is made up of teachers, administrators, parents, higher education representatives, a member of the business community, the president of the Nashua Teachers Union, and members of the Board of Education.

Technology would be integrated into the curriculum of the charter school. Blended instruction would be integral, combining face-to-face classroom time with online instruction. There would also be a heavy focus on project-based learning.

Mosher said while he supports innovative approaches to education, he doesn’t understand why those can’t be used now.

“If we know these are things that should be done, why aren’t we doing them?” Mosher asked, rhetorically.

Conrad said a decision needs to be made whether it makes sense to pursue the charter school model, or whether a “school within a school” would be more effective. The district had a similar program, SNTAS, which was closed in 2004.

If the district pursues a charter school, it would be in line for a $500,000 grant from the state Department of Education to help with startup costs.

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