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Where do candidates in Danbury stand on charter schools?

Cross post HatCityBLOG

NOTE: This post will be updated preiodically with comments from candidates.

Education has been a major topic of discussion during this election season with Democrats accusing Mayor Boughton of failing to adequately address the city’s school overcrowding situation.

Would a charter school Danbury be a good solution for overcrowding concerns? Proponents of the establishment of the Danbury Prospect Charter School say yes.

In 2018 a public school called The Danbury Prospect was approved by the Connecticut Education Board. This school was slated to open on Sept. 4th, 2019. At full capacity, it would eventually bring 780 new seats to our city.

These additional seats would serve grades 6-12. These legislators decided not to include this school in last year’s fiscal budget for the state.

Recently we had a meeting of concerned parents, and since that night, this became a major issue.

The truth surfaced about a school that could have been operational this year and could have helped ease the influx of new students.

This is a school that would bring additional dollars to a city that desperately needs an option that would educate hundreds of our students for a fraction of the cost.

As part of the superintendent’s request for emergency funds from Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona, the city should also request a special legislative session to approve the funding for The Danbury Prospect.

This proposal will at least ensure that at the start of the 2020-2021 academic school year, when another surge of new enrollment happens, the city would have more options to accommodate them adequately.

As the debate on the merit of the establishment of a charter school continues, I wanted to see where the candidates for Mayor and Board of Education stood on the topic.

During the Newstimes Editorial board meeting, Chris Setaro and Mark Boughton were asked for their opinion on the merit of the establishment of a charter school in the city.

I also reached out to all of the candidates for the Board of Education and asked them to give their thoughts on charter schools…

Veasna Roeun (R):

Thank you for giving this option the attention it rightly deserves. My support of this option is driven by the belief and principle of choice–if this is a solution to relieve the current issue with high enrollment and brings no additional cost to our parents or negatively impacts our property taxes, then why is it not a sound and logical solution to other lawmakers?

The numbers coming out of Brooklyn Prospect are great and the successes and access with our minority community are superb. If this is to open downtown, it will change the atmosphere and environment of an area that all of us believe need some attention. It will liven up any area where college students from Naugatuck could get involved with tutoring and after school programs. We have an art center and other community organizations nearby that could also partner up and get more parents involved.

The federal government increased funding by $60 million in the northeast region which compliments an already pool of funds that Connecticut has already set aside and does not affect ECS and state funding for public schools. It is just sitting there where other municipalities with these schools are already benefiting their communities.

This is a solution that has parents and children in mind and gives them the most important gift–choice. Choices are something I will never deny another person and in this case, it could be a life-changing one for members of our community, especially minorities like us.

It’s a choice that costs us nothing and worth a chance for more opportunities.

Kate Conetta (D)

Based on what I’ve heard about their model, Prospect has the potential to fit in the city’s landscape. I admire their commitment to a representative student population and the IB program. I also appreciate the difficulty that parents face when they are raising a child who may need a different environment than what is currently afforded by public school education in Danbury.

Similarly, I appreciate the difficult situation our school system faces overcrowding and underfunding. The Prospect team has done a good job of working alongside community members to learn about the challenges we face, and I think they would make a strong effort to continue this work with the DPS system to create an exchange of ideas and approaches.

Prospect does not appear to be the stereotypical Charter School – there are internal measures of oversight and accountability, they seem committed to a representative student body, and they have stated to me several times they are open to staff unionizing, among other things. I will take them at their word that they will honor these statements.

Ultimately I think it’s possible for this school to be part of a larger solution for the district.
That said, I also have significant reservations.

This is not a completely altruistic effort on the part of the Charter. They have a vested interest in demonstrating how their model can effectively be used within a certain geographic footprint in order to build its potential for funding from the federal level. At the end of the day, this is a business venture for them which, if it was unsuccessful here, would be a much greater liability for our local school system than it would be for them. Translation: if it doesn’t work out, Prospect faces an embarrassing setback while Danbury faces an emergency. When you consider that 1 in 3 charter schools awarded a federal grant ends up closing, this is a big risk, regardless of Prospect’s track record.

Danbury is the intended testing ground because of its similar demographics to Brooklyn, where all other schools are located, and its proximity. However, Danbury is not identical to Brooklyn, and though I appreciate their eagerness to work with us, I believe they are underestimating the challenges of recruiting a student body which accurately reflects Danbury’s population.

Prospect is proposing a community school where they encourage families to participate with sibling preference (I understand the point they make about the necessity of systemic family change), but this does not align with an equitable system for all students….it aligns with supporting the change they want within the group which is selected for the opportunity in the first place.

I also have concerns about their teacher recruitment process which through their own admission will pull in part from existing staff in their other facilities who are interested in relocating.
Part of what has made their model successful in Brooklyn is the network of connections they maintain which allows for team-building, resource-sharing, strategizing and support between school staff and administrations. It’s a big leap to put a school in a district that is geographically distant and expects that network to function equally well; even with advances in technology, there are still relational and communication gaps that often occur.

Although designated as a public school (it receives state/federal funding), the operations of the school are overseen by a completely separate Board, with one Danbury Board of Ed members permitted to participate. I don’t see that as a selling point since 1 vote on a board is easily overruled. They have the license to run Prospect completely independent of the public school district should they wish to do so.

Only some of the funding is provided through state/federal grants; the rest is provided through private funding which could dry up with little notice.

If a Charter is granted, the state would provide approximately $11,000 per student enrolled. Currently, CT provides around $3,500 per Danbury public school student. So, in addition to pulling funding away from students at the public schools, they are granting significantly more per-pupil funding to a school that is exempt from city oversight. And the Danbury Board of Ed would still be on the hook for busing these children.

Though this is promoted as offering a choice to Danbury families, the reality is that being a lottery-based system it will only be a choice for those students accepted to the program. This school would serve grades 6-12, and is intended to grow to around 800-900 students. In our middle schools and high schools, we have approximately 6,250 students. Less than 1/6 of them would be able to participate in this program.

There is no guarantee that Prospect will be a longterm solution for Danbury. Many factors are at play here, most significantly the funding for the school (the tenuousness of which is mentioned above) and the continued positive intentions of the Charter. I believe the current staff/leadership has these positive intentions, but unlike public schools that are bound by state legislation and beholden to a BOE that is elected by the community, there are no mechanisms to protect these intentions should new people come on board.

At the end of the day, as a board member (and again, this is my personal view and does not represent anyone but myself) it is my obligation to look out for the needs of all schoolchildren in our district and to encourage and support the best public school options available.

We obviously have some big issues to tackle. Chronic underfunding (going back a decade) from both the city and the state means that our public schools are overcrowded, understaffed and insufficiently supported. I am here to fight for adequate funding for all of our public schools and for an opportunity for EVERY student within that system. These problems will not be addressed overnight; there is no cure-all.

To be clear, as a private entity, Prospect does not come to the table with answers for our full district needs.

At this point, it would be impossible to honor my responsibility to the Board and to the community of Danbury by supporting Prospect on its own. That could change if the district comes up with a comprehensive plan which includes Prospect as part of the solution and not as a separate bandaid-style approach.

Please note, I am keeping an open mind – I think it is in the best interests of the community to consider all possibilities when developing a complete solution. I have been in conversation with several folks from Prospect and I believe they want to bring something great to Danbury. I will continue to dialogue with them and I plan to visit one of their schools in person in the near future.

Joe DaSilva (D)

Thank you for the opportunity to comment concerning charter schools. I agree it is an important issue. Similar to Kate Conetta, while I am happy to discuss these issues with anyone, I am not interested in a back and forth on social media – I don’t believe benefits anyone – I believe offline discussions would be far more productive.

I do not believe that a charter school is the solution Danbury schools’ challenges. In large part this is because I am opposed to the use of public funds for the operation of a charter school run by a private entity. The use of public funds is a critical issue because the notion that charter schools don’t take away from the funding of local public schools is simply not true. A significant source of funding for any charter school comes from the State of Connecticut. As we all are well aware, the State of Connecticut has a finite amount of money to devote to education. Every dollar of state money that gets funneled to the operation of a charter school is a dollar that was not, but should have been, allocated to our existing public schools. I will acknowledge some frustration in that the State, in some cases, funds charter schools at a higher rate than they do regular public schools – frankly correcting that wrongly directed priority alone would go a long way to strengthening our local public schools.

Amount of funding aside, I am in no way convinced that the state would fund a charter school for all time. I am not willing to chance that, for example, during the next recession the state couldn’t suddenly decide that the city needs contribute to the costs associated with a charter school that isn’t answerable to the local Board of Education.

Such local oversight is important. Our existing public schools are answerable to a Board of Education, the members of which are, in turn, answerable to the voters; charter schools are not. Specifically, for example, the most recent proposal for a charter school in Danbury would permit only a single Board of Education member to serve on its Board. That is simply not sufficient.
In addition to not being subject to the oversight of the local Board of Education, charter schools are not subject to all of the Freedom of Information rules that our public schools are subject to; nor are they necessarily subject to the same workplace protections that our local schools are.

Specifically, for example, charter school teachers are almost universally not members of collective bargaining units and are not necessarily afforded the freedom to teach that comes with tenure. In other words, they can be fired because the administration disagrees with their viewpoint on an issue. For example, if an administrator disagreed with a history teacher’s view as to whether the US won or lost the Vietnam war, (I had 2 brilliant professors in college take opposite sides in that debate) the teacher could be fired. That is not acceptable.

Most important, however, are results. Charter schools do not necessarily show better academic performance and results. In fact, in too many cases around the country charter schools have shown lower academic results than regular public schools. Further, in far too many instances, charter schools have even failed or closed. Any closure would suddenly become Danbury’s problem overnight. While I am confident that, for example, Danbury High School, Broadview and Shelter Rock Schools aren’t going anywhere without the input of the whole city of Danbury, I have no such faith that a privately operated charter school couldn’t disappear overnight. That is not a risk I am willing to take.

Ultimately, I agree with the notion that the Danbury school system faces several challenges for which there are no easy answers. It will undoubtedly take time and effort to fix the problems that have come from the current administration’s failure to plan for rising enrollment and to properly fund our schools. That said, a charter school that is not answerable to the local community through its elected Board of Education, but is instead beholden to a faraway corporate board with, at best, minimal oversight from the State Board of Education, is not the answer.

Joe Britton (D)

I do believe the district has reached the point where every possible solution should be on the table to consider and debate. That said, at this moment I do not believe a charter school will solve any of Danbury’s long term problems but would merely become another band-aid which would need to get replaced eventually. The main issue I have with charter schools starts on an ideological level, I believe in the simple phrase, Public Money to Public Schools. It’s obvious there is only so much money in the State budget, so if we can send money to a charter why shouldn’t we be sending it to a public school to start with? Using the argument “the City won’t fund the charter, the State will” much like Mr. Dasilva said, say God forbid another recession hits, and the state yanks the chord on funding a charter, who will bail the school out and what’s going to happen to those kids when the charter closes? Like Joe said it’s too risky.

Another issue I have is lack of LOCAL oversite. Yes, I understand they have to comply with state education laws, but a lot of what makes public education so great is the local school district reflects the community which it serves through oversite from a local School Board. With a charter, you lose that.

Those are my two main issues. Until we start getting our fair share of funding from the State and the City I can’t get behind a charter that’s funded by public dollars.