Feds Investigate Red Bank Charter School

February 21, 2017
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The Red Bank Charter School is facing an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education over allegations the school has contributed to a racially segregated school district. Photo by Nikole J. Ghirardi

By John Burton

RED BANK – The U.S. Department of Education has agreed to investigate the Red Bank Charter School concerning long-standing allegations that the school has perpetuated racial segregation in the local school district.

An education department spokesman confirmed this week to The Two River Times that the department’s Office of Civil Rights opened an investigation on Jan. 31. Given that it’s an ongoing investigation, the spokesman declined to offer any additional information.

That investigation is in response to a complaint filed last November charging the Red Bank Charter School, 58 Oakland St., with civil rights violations in its enrollment practices.

The complaint was filed by the Latino Coalition of New Jersey, a Monmouth and Ocean counties advocacy group, and Fair Schools Red Bank, a local organization supportive of the district’s traditional public schools.

The complaint alleges that Red Bank is the “most segregated school district in New Jersey” and points to the charter school’s history of enrollment as evidence of this allegation. They said it exacerbates the inequity by violating state law requiring the school to seek out a cross-section of the community’s school-aged population to better reflect the overall community. The complaint further charges the charter school failed to adhere to a consent order issued by the state commissioner of education in 2007 requiring the charter school to improve its racial and economic diversity.

“The district has grown more and more Latino in terms of its makeup and they’ve still managed to maintain a 50 percent white population,” said Frank Argote-Freyre, director of the Latino Coalition, referring to the charter school. “How is that possible in a publicly funded school district?”

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In response to the complaint, Meredith Pennotti, the charter school’s principal, issued a statement this week. In it she said, “The filing of this complaint is a transparent attempt by a small anti-charter group to cast a cloud over the Red Bank Charter School renewal application without actually having to prove their meritless claims before the acting Commissioner of Education makes her decision. They are seeking attention, not justice. We are confident that when the U.S. Department of Education actually takes a closer look into these unsubstantiated allegations, they will find Red Bank Charter School to be a model for how districts can create an academically high-achieving integrated school in a racially diverse district. When these detractors call a school that has more than 50 percent minorities a ‘bastion of segregation,’ they have lost all their credibility and the DOE will discover that their hyperbole flies in the face of reality.”

The charter school is currently awaiting the New Jersey Department of Education’s decision concerning the school’s five-year charter renewal. When contacted this week, David Saenz, a spokesman for the state Department of Education, said the decision is pending and his department, as a matter of policy, wouldn’t offer any comment on an ongoing investigation being conducted by the federal counterparts.

The Red Bank Charter School, 58 Oakland St., was established in 1997 and has been controversial during its history. Photo by Nikole J. Ghirardi

The parties who filed the initial complaint said last year they submitted it to the state DOE to be included in the public comment portion of the renewal application.

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The 2015-2016 enrollment numbers for the charter school according to state DOE records show that, of the approximately 200 students enrolled in the pre-kindergarten through eighth grade classes, about 52 percent are white and approximately 38 percent are Hispanic; the public school’s white population is in the low single digits, with the Hispanic population at more than 80 percent. Many of the roughly 1,400 public school students are enrolling with little or no English language proficiency and, for many in the Hispanic and African American population, are economically disadvantaged.

“What they’ve done here is create this white, wealthy enclave within a largely Spanish district,” Argote-Freyre charged. “It’s just wrong.”

Argote-Freyre and his organization are seeking nothing less than to have the school’s charter revoked and the school shuttered.

“We don’t oppose charter schools,” Argote-Freyre insisted. “But we expect them to reflect the demographics in the district.”

The Latino Coalition of New Jersey has filed similar complaints for other charter schools in New Jersey – in Franklin Township, Morristown and Morris Township – and plans on filing one against a Princeton charter school, alleging they too create segregated districts.

“Segregation is against the law,” he said. “It’s against federal law and it’s against state law.”

“Red Bank may be the worst,” he maintained, “but it’s not the only one.”

The Red Bank Charter School was established in 1997 and has been controversial since its inception. It has successfully defended itself from other legal challenges in the past, brought by the Red Bank Board of Education. The school, however, ran into a firewall of opposition last year when it applied to state education officials to expand its facility and double its enrollment. The state DOE denied that application.

Charter schools are publicly funded, privately managed schools. In Red Bank’s case the school receives approximately $1.6 million annually in taxpayer dollars to operate.

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