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Dismay with the Red Bank Charter School

Testimony to the NJ State Board of Education, 7 September 2016

Good afternoon. My name is Wayne Woolley and I am a Red Bank taxpayer. I am also the parent of two high honor roll students at the Red Bank Public Schools.

I appeared before this board in January to voice my heartfelt opposition to a proposal that would have allowed the Red Bank Charter School to double its enrollment to 400 students.

Fortunately, for all of the residents of Red Bank, Commissioner Hespe denied that request.

However, the conduct of the charter school leadership over the past year has left many people in Red Bank questioning the need for a second taxpayer-funded school in a community of just 12,000 residents.

The community’s dismay with the Red Bank Charter School began when the school released financial impact statements that flew in the face of numbers crunched by the Red Bank Borough School Board, its Borough Council, the borough auditor, as well as analysis conducted by state Senator Jennifer Beck.

No one, it seemed, was willing to believe that a school that accounts for nearly $1 million a year in duplicative costs – and which spends $2,000 per pupil more than the borough’s public schools – could possibly be saving tax dollars.

And that’s because it’s not. Red Bank has awoken to the fact that in our town at least, school choice simply means higher taxes.

The charter school’s per-pupil spending, which exceeds that of Rumson, a far more affluent community, is not the only thing that’s outsized.

Two months after the expansion was denied, the unelected charter board of trustees granted a pay raise retroactive to July 1, 2015 to the school’s principal, Meredith Pennotti. She now makes just over $146-thousand dollars a year to lead a school of 200 students. That’s about 2-thousand dollars a year more than the borough’s school superintendent Jared Rumage, who leads a school system that serves more than 14-hundred students.

It doesn’t end there. In July, the charter school signed a one-year contract that will pay 33-hundred dollars a month to Jaffe Communications, a Newark-based public relations firm. That’s on top of the renewal of a $5,000 annual communication’s contract with a firm led by one of the school’s parents. That’s 45-thousand dollars worth of PR a year. As a communications professional, I can assure you that’s a lot. And as veteran educators, you’re aware that under almost any interpretation of the state administrative code, no public school district would dare to spend that much on PR. The Red Bank Borough Public Schools spend exactly zero dollars.

Don’t get me wrong. The Red Bank Charter School’s image could use a boost. After years of arguing that its existence was justified because it outperformed the public schools, that’s no longer the case. Last year, the public school eight graders outperformed their charter school counterparts on both the Language Arts and Math Portions of the PARCC test. The Red Bank Public School kids that took the Algebra I PARCC finished with a higher average than their counterparts in Rumson, Fair Haven and Princeton. Meanwhile, the charter school has seen six years of declines in standardized test scores.

And let’s recognize that the Red Bank Charter School serves a student body that’s far whiter and more affluent than the public school.

The existence of the charter school has created the most segregated school system in New Jersey in Red Bank.

A weighted lottery conducted by the Charter School in April did little to change that. Only 20 percent of the 109 non-sibling applicants for that lottery applied as economically disadvantaged.

It’s not surprising, considering that the charter school made no effort in its first 17 years of existence to make the broader community even aware of its existence. They did, however, go out of their way to make sure that people who look like me knew about the lottery.

In February, Roger Foss a member of the charter school’s board of trustees spoke at a news conference and outlined why the school was created and why he considered it a success. He didn’t focus on academic achievement, nor did he elaborate on any special need the school fulfilled. Instead, Mr. Foss said that the Red Bank Charter School was created to prevent white flight from Red Bank and it had succeeded.

What does that say about a school when the best argument to be made for its existence is that it keeps white people who are uncomfortable with sending their kids to school with brown children from leaving town?

Next Friday is the deadline for the Red Bank Charter School to request a five-year renewal of its charter. Frankly, one of the school’s own trustees made a good case for why it should be denied. A school that exists to prevent white flight has no place in this country in 2016. It has outlived its usefulness. 

 

Wayne Woolley