Cumberland Mayor Daniel J. McKee Announces Plans For The First Mayoral Academy In Rhode Island
March 12, 2009
(From The Providence Journal, March 12, 2009)
By JENNIFER D. JORDAN
CUMBERLAND — A group of mayors and town administrators, led by Cumberland Mayor Daniel J. McKee, announced yesterday the launch of plans for a novel kind of public charter school.
The mayors hope their proposed Rhode Island Mayoral Academies, free from many of the rules and restrictions of regular public schools, will spread through the state as a new educational model.
Unlike the state’s existing 11 charter schools, mayoral academies would not have to pay teachers a prevailing wage, contribute to the state teachers retirement system or offer teachers tenure protection. These freedoms would allow the academies greater control over school budgets, culture and personnel, and enable them to attract — and pay for — top teaching talent, McKee said.
A proposal in Governor Carcieri’s budget would extend those freedoms to all charter schools, if approved by lawmakers.
Teachers unions oppose those changes, saying they would turn charters into “private schools, financed by public dollars.”
McKee said if his proposal wins approval by the Rhode Island Department of Education and secures $700,000 in state financing, he wants to open an elementary school this September in his town’s Valley Falls section, in a former parochial school building.
The school would serve 80 kindergarten and first-grade students from Central Falls, Cumberland, Lincoln and Pawtucket. A middle school would open, starting with a sixth-grade class, in fall 2010. Eventually, the schools would cover K-12.
If there is a delay with state funding or approval, McKee said he plans for both schools to open in 2010. He hopes more regional mayoral academies will open, mixing urban and suburban students.
A 12-member board, a mix of mayors, community leaders and education figures chaired by McKee, would oversee the schools. But national charter school operators would run and staff the schools. Democracy Prep, which runs a middle school in Harlem, has already applied to the Department of Education to run the first mayoral academy.
In addition, McKee said his group has received financial support from nonprofit organizations and private donors to help pay start-up costs, including a $2-million commitment from the Raza Development Fund of Arizona to purchase a building.
“We made a commitment to the General Assembly last year that if the state lowered the drawbridges, a great deal of resources would walk across that bridge into Rhode Island,” McKee said.
It is unclear whether the proposal will get the green light this year. Several other charter school proposals have already been pre-approved and are waiting for state financing. The governor’s budget provides $4.4 million for the expansion of charters. An early version set aside $700,000 for the mayoral academies, but that allocation was later removed.
Mayors becoming involved in public schools is a national trend, said Greg Richmond, president of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.
“Mayors know their communities best, they can marshal resources and they are accountable to voters,” Richmond said. “This Rhode Island proposal is unique in that this is a group of mayors — not just one — who want to provide better educational opportunities for kids in the state.”
Central Falls Mayor Charles Moreau, Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena, Lincoln Town Administrator Joseph Almond, Smithfield Town Administrator Paulette Hamilton and Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian attended the news conference, along with state Rep. Peter F. Kilmartin, D-Pawtucket, and state Rep. Kenneth Vaudreuil, D-Central Falls.
In Rhode Island, demand for charter schools is high. Students must enter a lottery system to be accepted. Existing charter schools serve 3,100 students; 2,500 students were placed on a wait list last year, due to a lack of space. Three of the charters have unionized teachers and are run by school districts; eight are independent.
According to a proposed budget article, charters and mayoral academies would no longer have to follow wage, pension or tenure rules, nor would their teachers automatically be considered public employees. Seth Andrew, founder of Democracy Prep Charter School, says freedom from such rules allows him to pay his teachers 25 percent more than the average teacher salary in New York City. New teachers earn $65,000 at his school and senior teachers earn six figures, Andrews said.
Union officials oppose changing the current charter school system.
“I would be very worried about how these schools are run,” said Larry Purtill, president of National Education Association Rhode Island. “We would see more charter schools where you don’t have to pay a fair wage or quality health care.”
Marcia B. Reback, president of the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals, said she opposes no longer classifying charter school teachers as public employees.
“I don’t think teachers should be treated as second-class citizens,” Reback said. “What you would have, literally, is private schools paid for by taxpayers, and private managers hiring private headmasters and private school teachers and private sector custodians and secretaries — in a school being paid for by public money.”
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