Opponents claim New Bedford victory

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NEW BEDFORD — Opponents of the Innovators’ charter school plan declare victory after the group behind the new school announced it would withdraw its application for state approval, after months of organization and debate on the merits of the school.

“At the risk of being triumphant, it really does feel like we’ve made history,” said Colin Green, an organizer with the New Bedford Coalition to Save Our Schools. “It really looks like a big win.”

Last year, the group behind Innovators Charter School announced that they were looking to open a school for grades 6-12 in New Bedford or Fall River, but most likely in New Bedford, that would focus on education STEM and early college classes. Students would have had the chance to graduate from high school with an associate degree. If they received state approval, the school planned to open next September.

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Parent Michelle Willis outside Kilburn Mill in New Bedford before a public hearing on the charter school.

Members of the founding group of the proposed charter school included former Superintendent of Fall River Schools Meg Mayo Brown, former Principal of Fall River Public Schools and current Executive Director of New Heights Charter School in Brockton Omari Walker and former Bristol Community College president Jack Sbrega, among others. .

This Tuesday, February 15, the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education was to make a decision on whether or not to grant a charter to the group. But last week, Mayo Brown said in a letter to Massachusetts Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley that the group would withdraw its application and not proceed with plans to open the new school.

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The letter did not go into specifics, but the subtext seemed to suggest that local opposition to the plan may have played a role in the group’s decision.

“Over the past few months and weeks, it has become increasingly clear that the political complexities on the ground will make it very difficult for us to successfully launch our first public university charter school on the South Coast at this time. As a result, we need more time to continue sharing the vision of our proposed educational model in the community,” Mayo Brown wrote.

In an email to the Herald News, Mayo Brown said the founding band members would not comment further on their decision at this time.

“Our group will have more to say on this at a later date,” she said.

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Outspoken local opposition

Opponents of the plan said the school would drain needed resources from existing public schools in New Bedford and Fall River and duplicate existing college programs. Many have pointed to the charter school, and charter schools in general, as undemocratic attempts to privatize public education, while some have described the Innovator Charter School as a group of outsiders trying to put in implements a plan against the wishes of local community members.

Cynthia Roy, a member of the New Bedford Coalition to Save Our Schools, pointed out that many of the proposed board members did not reside in Fall River or New Bedford, and some even lived out of state, in the Rhode Island. And while the charter would have received public funding, the council would not have been elected by the public.

“School committee members need to be accessible,” she said.

New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell speaks at Kilburn Mill in New Bedford during a public hearing on a charter school.

New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell was one of many local officials, including Fall River Mayor Paul Coogan, school superintendents from both towns and members of both school committees, to speak out strongly in public testimony against the proposed charter.

Mitchell said the group’s withdrawal came as no surprise, given the level of local opposition to the plan. He said residents were blindsided by the proposal when it came to the state. He learned this from Nick Christ, president and CEO of BayCoast Bank, who at the time was a member of the school’s proposed board of trustees, just days before the bid was submitted. The group could have done a lot more to explain to community members and local leaders why they thought the school was necessary, he said.

“There was a presumption that people recognized and objected to,” he said. “This group went about it in a way that would inevitably lead to division. I take no pleasure in declaring a political victory, quite the contrary.

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Charter school opponents pressure local businesses

Six of the 13 proposed members of the Innovators Charter school board had ties to BayCoast Bank, including Christ, two vice presidents and three corporators – Mayo Brown, Walker and Sbrega. In late January, Christ announced in an op-ed in the New Bedford Standard-Times and the Herald News that all bank employees would withdraw from the project.

The move came after the Coalition to Save Our Schools focused a public pressure campaign on the bank and other local groups and businesses that had voiced support for the new charter school.

A few weeks earlier, members of the coalition had visited one of the banking establishments to hand-deliver a letter to Christ expressing their opposition to the bank’s involvement in the proposed school. As they did this, Roy said, other members stood outside. Photos and videos posted to the group’s social media show 10 people, some in Christmas attire, holding signs with slogans such as “public funds for public schools” and playing Christmas music. In mid-January, some members of the group returned to the bank and handed out flyers to passersby, sticking to public sidewalks, Roy said.

"Teamster Christmas" Dan Bush with a stockpile full of coal outside Kilburn Mill in New Bedford before a public hearing on a charter school.

The group also publicly called out local businesses that had signed letters of support for the school, encouraging people to call them, and visited businesses in person to persuade owners to change their minds. They got at least six companies to cancel their support, she said.

Roy described their engagement with local businesses as a form of “political education” and said some local business owners they spoke to had signed letters as a personal favor to a friend and were not fully informed of the potential disadvantages of school.

She described the coalition as a grassroots gathering of local residents, parents and workers, including but not limited to members of local teachers’ unions. The group predates the Innovators Charter School proposal and has campaigned on issues such as an end to high-stakes testing and improving access to healthy food in schools. Roy said the group surveyed neighborhoods to gain support for the campaign against Innovators Charter School.

“We had meetings over pizza and coloring books,” she said. “It’s community organizing.”

And as for the action outside the bank branch, Roy described it as “friendly”.

“The organization must be made public,” she said. “Sometimes you have to educate the public to make things happen.”

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Mitchell said he couldn’t speak to the specific tactics used by local organizers, but said he was glad community members made their views known.

“I would never tolerate any inappropriate tactics,” he said. “I think people should also understand that this group of candidates has sought to impose this school without deigning to ask the opinion of anyone in the public or the public authorities. So it’s no surprise that people got upset about it.

Audrey Cooney can be contacted at [email protected] Support local journalism by purchasing a digital or print subscription to The Herald News today.

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