DaVinci co-founder still confident
School board opposition ‘unlikely’ to slow down application for fourth charter school
by Stephen LaMarca
Reporter Staff Writer
May 20, 2012 | 4224 views | 0 0 comments | 7 7 recommendations | email to a friend | print
NOT APPROVED – The Hoboken Board of Education passed a resolution determining that the DaVinci Charter School would not be in the “educational or financial” interests of the school district.
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Laura Siegel, founder of the DaVinci Charter School, which the Board of Education has opposed, believes the school board’s disapproval will not block the eventual granting of the school’s charter by the state Department of Education.

Proponents of the school, created by a variety of founders including Councilman David Mello, hope it will be a kindergarten to 2nd grade school with a focus on science, technology, engineering, and math. The school seeks to establish three classes per grade, with one certified teacher and an additional apprentice instructor per class, and would be the city’s fourth charter school if approved.

However, the Hoboken Board of Education passed a resolution at its May 8 meeting to oppose the application of the school for approval from the state Department of Education.
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“What we’re basically saying is, at this point, we don’t have the money to fund a fourth.” – Dr. Mark Toback
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Attached to the resolution was a letter Superintendent of Schools Dr. Mark Toback wrote to Christopher Cerf, the acting commissioner for the state Department of Education. Toback’s letter detailed his opposition to the application. Toback’s main concerns are that the DaVinci School is “at odds” with the required student selection process, and that the school would drain needed funds from the district.

“It’s not that the Board of Ed is opposed to charter schools in general,” said Toback. “We seem to coexist just fine with the three [charter schools] that are already here. What we’re basically saying is, at this point, we don’t have the money to fund a fourth.”

Toback said he believes the DaVinci Charter School is the only application the district has publicly opposed.

Looking ahead

The DaVinci application, according to Siegel, will be approved or rejected by the State Department of Education on Sept. 30. If the school is approved, it can open by fall 2013.

The approval will come following a series of questions and interviews within the coming months.

Siegel said that she did not believe Toback and the Hoboken school district’s opposition to the application will prevent the eventual approval.

“The Board of Education’s [resolution] is something that is very common,” said Siegel. “Boards of education quite often oppose charter applications. I think it’s unlikely [to slow down the application] because I think the state understands that [district opposition] is common. It’s largely a symbolic gesture.”

Siegel said that she does not favor charter schools over public schools, but sees it as a necessary alternative.

“Not all children learn the same way, or are motivated in the same way,” said Siegel. “Different schools can be a benefit for different kids. [DaVinci] offers an additional and much-desired option.”

“This is something that we think would be a really exciting option for kids in Hoboken.”

Enrollment process questioned

In his letter, Toback cites the DaVinci application, which based their student enrollment numbers on the current student body currently enrolled in the HoLa charter school. Charter schools require a random lottery enrollment process in order to be approved by the state.

“I am concerned that despite a required random selection process, the DaVinci founders have already stated their desired student demographic, and they have actually put this in writing,” said Toback in the letter.

However, Carlos Perez, chief executive officer of the New Jersey Charter Schools Association, said that selecting an anticipated demographic is part of the application process.

“It’s more of a planning tool,” said Perez, adding that the selection process is still in pure, random lottery form. “It will help influence and anticipate the type of funding the school can get.”

Toback later told The Reporter that the current charter schools are less diverse than public schools.

“[The anticipated enrollment of DaVinci] would only serve to further segregate a population of children who have already experienced a “segregative” effect [in other charter schools],” said Toback in his letter.

Toback also provided statistics apparently obtained from the state Department of Education that demonstrate that roughly 16 percent of students in Hoboken’s charter schools received free or reduced-cost lunches, which come out of the charter school’s budget. In contrast, roughly 69 percent of students enrolled in the school district receive free or discounted lunches.

“So now you’re going to have another Charter School that very clearly has an intention of pulling out more students from that demographic,” said Toback, “and that’s not a good thing.”

“It’s supposed to be random process,” Toback continued. “[When you] state what kind of students you expect to come into your school, it calls into question the lottery process itself.”

Perez said that statistics are often dependent on the area surrounding the school.

“Many times when you look at a charter school, it’ll be more skewed toward the community that’s immediately surrounding the building,” said Perez. “More likely the [students] are going to go to the school right next door.”

In his letter, Toback also charges that the application, which suggests a planned location as 720 Monroe St., or within the Monroe Center for the Arts, would draw in students from the northern section of Hoboken, which, according to Toback, is an affluent area.

Siegel countered that a location has not been selected due to the school’s pending approval status. She also said that the “segregative” effect is not intended.

“Not only is it our legal obligation, but we believe our approach is [designed] for kids from every background,” said Siegel, adding that the founders have been working on an “outreach” to gather the attention of every sector of the community.

Further complaints

Toback’s other main complaint was his perceived lack of funding for the new charter school. Public schools are essentially “billed” for each charter school’s budget, according to Toback.

Siegel said that the budget is essentially “allocated,” or redirected to the charter schools, since the charter schools enroll students that would have otherwise attended the public schools.

“There’s no additional money at all,” said Siegel. “It’s a complicated formula but essentially if a child attends a charter school, the district allocates funds toward that child. No money is taken away from public education.”

Toback said that the argument that the funding is simply reallocated is flawed. He said that since the charter school plans to have six classes, it won’t necessarily mean six fewer classes for the public school system.

“It’s not going to be all in one place,” said Toback. “The students will come from all over the place.”

Toback cited stable financial costs such as the need to use the same amount of energy on heating and lighting, as well as funding for the library and recreation programs.

“There would have to be cuts in those areas,” said Toback.

Stephen LaMarca may be reached at slamarca@hudsonreporter.com.

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