State Upholds Red Bank Charter School Extension

May 8, 2018
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The Red Bank Charter School at 58 Oakland St. in Red Bank. Photo by Jay Cook

By Jay Cook | 

RED BANK – Ongoing legal disputes challenging the Red Bank Charter School’s 2017 extension were resolved in April when the state’s top education official defended the 20-year-old school from its critics.

In an April 16 letter to Red Bank Charter School Board of Trustees president Roger J. Foss, acting education commissioner Lamont O. Repollet, Ed.D. reaffirmed that the school would be approved for a five-year charter extension through June 30, 2022. All charter schools in New Jersey must be reapproved every five years by the state.

A nearly 12-month-long review process culminated when Repollet determined that the Red Bank Charter School “is seeking, ‘to the maximum extent practicable,’ to enroll a cross-section of Red Bank Borough’s school-age population.”

“From our perspective, there was no concern,” Red Bank Charter School principal Meredith Pennotti told The Two River Times this week. “This is our fourth renewal, we’re going into our 20th year and there has never been a question.”

Initial appeals from Fair Schools Red Bank and the Latino Coalition of New Jersey sought to prohibit another charter extension by showcasing the school’s alleged “segregative effect in Red Bank Borough Public Schools,” the letter stated.

Wayne Woolley, co-founder of Fair Schools Red Bank, called the decision “disappointing” in light of numerous attempts to challenge the charter school.

“The important thing that needs to be brought to light is that the Red Bank Charter School needs to make every effort to have their student body reflect the student population of Red Bank,” Woolley said to The Two River Times. “It doesn’t, and it’s not even close.”

“We’re very disappointed in the decision,” said Frank Argote-Freyre, director of the Latino Coalition of New Jersey. “We don’t believe the Commissioner of Education did not take into account the segregative impact of the charter school on the entire Red Bank school district. We are weighing all options, including an appeal.”

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The Red Bank Charter School was initially approved for a five-year charter renewal in February 2017 which was then appealed by Fair Schools Red Bank and the Latino Coalition of New Jersey that April. The renewal bounced through the state Superior Court’s Appellate Division and under went a pair of extensions before the record closed on Feb. 7, 2018.

The charter school’s opponents have recently challenged the demographics of its 200-member student body, alleging the school has a disproportionately white population in a town with a high percentage of minority residents.

Pennotti believes the Red Bank Charter School to be one of the most diverse charter schools in the state. During the 2016-17 school year, the school’s demographic breakdown was 43 percent white, 43 percent Hispanic, 12 percent African-American and 2 percent Asian.

“(For) the argument that we’re a segregated school primarily with children of one ethnicity, I challenge anyone to walk in the door and defend that statement, because they couldn’t,” Pennotti said. “Repeatedly, the naysayers, particularly of these groups, do not accept the invitation.”

Repollet found that charter school outreach programs designed to create more diversity have, in fact, worked as planned. One of those is a weighted annual lottery which will be in effect through 2019. Economically disadvantaged students have three chances to be chosen compared to other students who are afforded two possibilities. Siblings of students already enrolled in the school are also automatically granted acceptance.

In the lottery’s first year, enrollment for Hispanic students with a sibling preference increased 26 percent and the number of white students with a sibling preference decreased 11 percent.

“As a result of the weighted lottery in favor of economically disadvantaged students, enrollment at RBCS is trending in a direction that better reflects the demographics of the school-age population in the community,” Repollet wrote in the letter.

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Pennotti also pointed out how education commissioners from two separate administrations with different political heads have all found the Red Bank Charter School to be in compliance. Repollet, formerly the Asbury Park Schools superintendent, was appointed by Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, earlier this year. Former commissioner Kimberly Harrington was an appointee of GOP Gov. Chris Christie.

One thing that Woolley and Pennotti did agree on, though, was how underfunded the Red Bank Borough Public School district is.

“It’s not just a social justice issue of a school that’s trying to avoid having their demographics reflect the community,” said Woolley. “It’s also a matter of taxes.”

The borough school district received an extra $178,503 in state funds for the 2019 budget but it had to send $184,588 in funding to the Red Bank Charter School, creating a deficit of $6,085. Public school district officials had anticipated increases of about $1.2 million which ultimately never came.

In an interview with The Two River Times earlier this year, Red Bank Public School superintendent Jared Rumage said Red Bank’s funding problems are “exacerbated because the charter school exists.

“That makes the situation more complex and more problematic for our ability to provide a thorough and efficient education,” he said.

In an effort to save costs, Pennotti suggested both parties stop the legal action and put those funds toward school programs for both the charter school and the borough public school.

“The district warrants such additional funding. We stand shoulder to shoulder with them on that,” she said. “Let this end and (let’s) put those legal fees into teacher salaries, into programs we’re looking to have cut.”

This article was first published in the May 3-10, 2018 print edition of The Two River Times.

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