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After Mayoral Academy Vote, Both Sides Move On

With the Board of Regents' vote to deny the mayoral academy application behind them, both sides of the issue are regrouping.

Officials from Achivement First and Cranston Mayor Allan W. Fung were handed a defeat last week when the the Board of Regents for Elementary and Secondary Education voted 7-1 last to deny an application to build a mayoral academy in Cranston, ending months of public debate that embroiled the mayor and school officials in a conflict over school funding and the future of education.

After the vote, Fung said he was "dissapointed" in the decision.

"Many children and parents are looking for different opportunities and they weren't given a chance in this vote," Fung said. "We will regroup and see where we're going."

The vote, which had been rescheduled multiple times due to an inundation of public comment at jam-packed public hearings all summer, comes after a grueling few weeks of public relations and lobbying on both sides of the issue.

Proponents and opponents of the charter school plan held rallies and both applied simultaneous pressure to the Regents and Governor Lincoln Chafee, who until now, had largely remained quiet on the issue.

Ultimately, it was an eleventh-hour letter from Chafee to George Caroulo, chairman of the Board of Regents, that appears to have sealed the school’s fate. It influenced the board enough to quickly vote to deny the proposals, with members stating they endorsed what the governor requested.

In his letter, which was read aloud into the record by Caroulo before the vote, Chafee reiterates his support for charter schools as a concept, but said he hopes the board “considers the views of parents and educators when weighing to approve the application,” a reference to the outcry against the proposal from teachers, public school officials and many parents that arose in Cranston as the months of hearings waged on.

Chafee also took issue with the enrollment lottery system weighed towards students who receive free or reduced price lunch, stating that any charter school should accommodate “all students, not the fortunate few.”

The proposal was to build a new school that would serve students from Cranston and Providence, run by a nonprofit charter school operator, Achievement First. It would have established two K-5 elementary schools and would expand to include two middle schools and a high school, serving up to 1,800 students by 2016.

Chafee recommend the state education department consider submitting to the Regents an alternative plan that he described as serving a larger pool of students from around the region.  He embraced the suggestion by Providence City Councilman Michael Solomon to build the charter school in Providence instead of Cranston. It could serve students from additional communities like North Providence, East Providence, Central Falls and Pawtucket. That would mitigate the financial impact on each participating community’s public school system, he said.

“At best, charter schools can develop innovative and effective methods of instruction for children at the greatest academic risk,” Chafee said. “The hope and goal of those efforts can be transported to other public schools. At worst, charter schools can diminish public accountability and create a separate school system that draws resources from public schools.”

The dissenting vote was from Regent Betsy Shimberg, who immediatley put a resolution on the table ordereding the education department to begin developing a plan to build a school per Chafee's recommendation with Achievement First as a partner.

Caroulo said Shimberg was "overreaching very badly" and her proposal would "completley short circuit public comment" and her intent could backfire. The Regents are not in a position to direct the education commissioner to complete a proposal so specifically, Caroulo said.

"The commissioner does not need us to determin that the resources of the department should persue the course of action the Governor is suggesting," Caroulo said. Instead, he said, "she comes to us for permission to implement things."

And Shimberg's motion assumed Achievement First would automatically be OK with signing on to the plan, even though they were there in the audience trying to absorb what just happened, let alone thinking that far into the future.

As a result, Shimberg withdrew her motion, but said she wanted to make sure the record showed the education department would begin work on a new proposal.

Cranston school officials hugged and shook hands at the end of the meeting, expressing relief over the vote.

Superintendent Peter Nero, who publically butted heads with Fung in a series of op ed pieces during the lengthy debate process, said that he was pleased the board considered "Cranston's voice."

He reiterated he was not against charter schools, as he's said many times. 

"I'd hope [the education department] goes forward with a plan for a school in Providence and includes superintendents in the process," Nero said. "We all should have a spot at the table. That was my problem at the beginning."

Nero said he knew that Fung was working on a charter school plan, but was blindsided when the Achivement First plan was submitted to the Regents. He though he'd play a role in the planning process, and that didn't happen.

For Fung, the vote means the end of an issue that has partially consumed his mayoralship and cost him some degree of public support. He fended off accusations that he was only out to pad his legacy and put his name on a building.

"I was only trying to do what I thought was best for the kids of Cranston," Fung said before he quietly broke from the crowd and slipped out the door.

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