Impact on public schools is a concernBy John BurtonRED BANK – A plan to double the size of Red Bank Charter School is necessary in order to meet the needs of the entire community, said Meredith Pennotti, the charter school’s principal.But some traditional public schools supporters fear the increased size would compromise the budgets, resources and extracurricular activities for Red Bank’s diverse school population.And there are the taxpayers, who wonder what it would mean for their property tax bills – should the plan move forward.“The reality is this is not good for the children of Red Bank. It’s not good for the taxpayers of Red Bank. It’s not good for Red Bank,” stressed Jared Rumage, Red Bank superintendent of schools.“We feel we have a model that can be shared more in Red Bank,” for the educational community’s betterment, Pennotti said of the plans.In December, The Red Bank Charter School, 58 Oakland St., submitted a proposal to state Department of Education (DOE) Commissioner David Hespe in Trenton to increase enrollment and facility.Hespe is expected to make his determination toward the end of February, according to DOE spokesman David Saenz.The plan calls for doubling the school’s current student population to 400 from its current 200. That would be done over a three-year period period. In essence, it means adding an additional class of students per grade for the pre-K-8th grade school, according to Pennotti.For the past three years, Pennotti said the wait list for students has been “robust,” roughly 112 students, believing that filling the additional 200 seats is an easy call.The “clincher” for school officials in favor of seeking the expansion, according to Pennotti, was the availability of an adjacent property, 135 Monmouth Street, which the school would use for its S.T.E.M. (science, technology, engineering and math) lab and additional classroom and activity space.Another deciding factor for the school is recent changes in state education policy that allow other factors to be considered when evaluating students’ and families’ socio-economic status as part of admission.Charter school students are selected by an annual lottery, but siblings are accepted without submitting to the lottery. Last year, however, DOE officials changed the lottery to give more weight to family income and other factors, to give those students a better chance to be selected.“This will increase our ability to serve the economically disadvantaged,” Pennotti said.The charter school is increasing its community outreach by mailing a bilingual application to every residence in the community that also makes families aware of the changes in the lottery system, according to Pennotti.Concern about how a proposed expansion of the Red Bank Charter School could impact public schools drew people to the borough’s middle school auditorium Wednesday. They marched to the Borough Council meeting at Borough Hall. Photo: Tina ColellaThe fact that the charter school population is significantly less diverse than the public school population and the community at large has long been a source of contention. Early in the charter school’s history, which was established in 1998, the district Board of Education waged a lengthy and rather bitter legal battle arguing the school allowed for creating a segregated school district, providing for “white flight” from the public school – on the taxpayer’s dime. The lawsuit was eventually unsuccessful and the two entities had entered into a sort of separate peace, letting live and let live, until this development.Increasing the enrollment, fears Rumage, “It is fairly accurate to say that funding would double over that period.” And given the state finances, no one expects funding from Trenton to increase in an appreciable way, he added.The public school district is currently required to provide $1.67 million for the 2015-2016 school year to cover 90 percent of the cost to provide under state guidelines what is determined to be a “thorough and efficient education.” It is up to the charter schools to find the additional 10 percent of the cost and provide and upkeep a facility.Should the state education commissioner allow this plan, departing students will result in less state education aid to the district. And that Rumage maintained, would mean having to raise property taxes, likely to the maximum 5 percent cap, to cover some of the shortfall. And given those limitations, he said, the likely scenario would mean cuts to programs, possibly eliminating positions and abandoning some programs.“It will lead to cuts here that will be devastating,” Rumage said. “I can’t emphasize that enough.”Pennotti countered, saying state aid dollars follow the student, so that money wouldn’t have gone to the district anyway and any decision the charter school makes has no impact on the public school budget.“What happens to the tax rate is the decision the borough makes in its spending,” Pennotti argued, referring to the borough board of education. “We have no input in the school budget.”The charter school was established by activist parents in the late 1990s when Gov. Christine Todd Whitman signed the legislation allowing for such schools to operate. In Red Bank the school was in response to a failing public school district, with rundown facilities and dismal test scores.Charter schools are public schools but have greater freedom and are exempt from much of the bureaucracy that critics say bogs down traditional public education. This freedom, charter school supporters argue, allows for more creative and effective education and gives families a choice.Families braved bitter cold Wednesday night to express concern about proposed plans for a charter school expansion. Photo: Tina ColellaRumage insisted, “I’m not anti-charter school. I’m just anti-expansion,” at this point. He hoped the charter school would postpone the expansion to give the district time to evaluate its situation.Pennotti dismisses the idea of waiting. “Waiting for what?” she asked. “We waited for a promise of a new day from five superintendents,” to turn around the public schools in the 18 years the charter school has been operating. Pennotti maintained her school’s standardized test scores far exceed the public schools’ and “for the sake of the children we have to move forward.”Rumage, who has been in the district for less than two years, fired back that Pennotti and others have mischaracterized the public school students’ achievements. “The big issue here is that people don’t know the full story,” and the strides the public district has been making over the years.The public school disproportionately faces more challenges than the charter school population. Ninety percent of the 1,410 students at the middle and primary schools qualify for (mostly) free and reduced cost lunch, a traditional measure of family income levels. The population also includes 33 percent of students who are limited English language proficient.By contrast, 52 percent of charter school are white (as compared to the 8 percent in the public schools), with a 4 percent population that is limited English-language proficient. The charter school population is 34 percent Hispanic; the public school population is 78 percent Hispanic. The number of charter school students who qualify for the free and reduced cost lunch is currently 38 percent.And some sources indicate that the per pupil funding results in the charter school receiving $2,000 more per student, per year.Julia Sass Rubin, an associate professor at Rutgers University’s Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, and an adjunct professor at Princeton University, has been studying Red Bank and its Charter School as part of her research on state funding of charter schools. Her analysis indicates the charter school has yet to live up to its potential even with its additional resources and continues to contribute to a segregated school district. “The data is pretty straightforward,” she said. “The district is underfunded relative to the charter school, under the current formula.”And when factoring in other variables, the larger percent of special needs students, among others, the divide is closer to $5,000 more per charter school student. And taking all of that into consideration, Rubin said, “if you look at all of those considerations, the charter school is really underperforming,” she said.In her final analysis, this expansion, “would either be devastating for the district or devastating for the taxpayers.”It should be noted Rubin has her detractors. In response to a report on charter school funding, enrollment and demographics she did with a doctoral candidate Mark Weber last year, the New Jersey Charter School Association, a charter school advocacy group, took Rubin to task. The association accused Rubin of having a personal agenda against charter schools.Rubin, this week denied that, offering, “Am I pro-public schools? Absolutely. But I’m not anti-charter school,” noting her daughter had attended a charter school for couple of years and Rubin had served on a nonprofit board that provided charter school facility funding.Rubin planned on providing her research to local educational and elected officials on Friday.This debate has spilled over into the political arena, as well. Mayor Pasquale Menna at this year’s annual reorganization meeting called it “The elephant in the room.”While the borough council has no formal say in the matter or decision, Menna plans to form a “blue ribbon committee,” of objective educational and financial professionals to evaluate the plan’s impact. Their report will be submitted to the DOE for consideration.In addition, on Wednesday evening the borough council was expected to vote on a nonbinding resolution asking the charter school to delay any actions until more information can be collected.Council sources said there was unanimous and bipartisan support for the resolution.