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    Education officials encourage districts to help charter schools with buildings

    MALDEN — The state’s top education official is encouraging local districts to hand over empty buildings to charter schools that want to expand, a controversial idea that is stoking emotions on both sides of the debate.

    Proponents say the effort could help charter schools, which are public institutions that run independently of local systems, with one of their biggest problems: trying to find ideal facilities for their programs.

    Critics, however, argue it makes no sense for local districts to give buildings to one of their biggest competitors. The buildings would come with strings attached.


    The idea will likely be tried for the first time in New Bedford, where Alma del Mar Charter School initially filed a bid last summer to add more than 1,000 seats.

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    Under a deal approved Tuesday by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, the city will give a shuttered school to Alma del Mar this fall for free. In exchange, the charter has agreed to reduce its expansion to 450 students and will admit only students from one of the school system’s neighborhood zones instead of from the entire city.

    Jeff Riley, commissioner of elementary and secondary education, said the approach “highlights a promising path forward for district charter collaboration in the Commonwealth.”

    The move passed on a 9-1 vote with one abstention.

    “I think this is an interesting and innovative model,” said Margaret McKenna, a board member.


    The deal, though, is far from final. The charter school and the city are still working out the details of a memorandum of understanding, while the Legislature must approve a change in or an exception to state law that requires charter schools to admit students citywide by a lottery. No legislation has been filed yet.

    If the deal falls apart, the state board approved a backup plan, in a 9-2 vote, that would allow Alma del Mar to add 600 seats in a yet-to-be-identified facility. Enrollment would be open citywide.

    Opposition to the deal is already mounting.

    Max Page, vice president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, which represents New Bedford teachers, called the deal and its contingency plan “extortion.”

    “You have weaponized the charter expansion process, holding a gun to the head of the city, its students, and its parents,” Page told the board in testimony before the vote.


    Alma del Mar, like most charter schools, doesn’t employ unionized teachers.

    Charter schools in Massachusetts, which often make do when they first open in church basements, strip malls, or other lackluster space, have been trying for years to gain access to shuttered schools.

    But more often than not they fail and must devise plans to erect new buildings or spend millions of dollars converting office buildings or other facilities into 21st-century learning spaces.

    Since charter schools first began opening in Massachusetts in the mid-1990s, they have been at odds with local districts over money.

    Every time students leave for a charter school, they take with them thousands of dollars in per-student state aid from their local districts. Charters argue this is fair because the districts are no longer educating those students and the districts also receive a limited amount of state reimbursement.

    It’s hard to say whether other districts would be interested in using vacated buildings to broker deals with charter schools over expansion or other issues.

    Boston school officials and charter school leaders appeared to be heading in this direction in 2015 when they began discussions about unifying their student enrollment systems and the future use of vacated school buildings. The talks ultimately stalled, and no plan emerged.

    Separate from that effort, the school system does lease two buildings to the Roxbury Preparatory Charter School.

    A few New Bedford parents, in testimony to the state board, expressed the need for Alma del Mar to expand.

    Wigdy Mahmoud talked about the frustration his family encountered as they waited for spots to open at Alma del Mar’s current school, saying that his three sons were struggling in the New Bedford school system but that has changed since transferring to Alma del Mar.

    “Within [the] first few months, we have seen such great progress and success with all three kids,” he said.

    The state education board also voted to place City on a Hill Charter in New Bedford on probation for a variety of reasons, including low MCAS scores, high rates of student absenteeism, and dropout rates that exceed the average for New Bedford High School.

    Leaders for the charter school, which was originally founded in Boston and runs two campuses there that would be unaffected by the probation, pledged they would turn the school around.

    James Vaznis can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.