February 25, 2013
When members of SUNY’s Board of Trustees consider whether the nation’s first union-run charter school deserves to stay open, they won’t have much guidance.
That’s because in what could be an unprecedented move, reviewers from the SUNY Charter Schools Institute have declined to recommend a fate for the struggling UFT Charter School in East New York.
The reviewers did not recommend that the school stay open, or that it be closed — despite saying that academic performance was not up to par, discipline bordered on corporal punishment, high-need students were underserved, and basic mechanisms to keep students safe were not in place.
Without the advice, the decision will be left up to a three-member SUNY Charter Schools Committee, which will meet Tuesday morning to consider renewals for 10 charter schools. The UFT Charter School was the lone school not given an endorsement for renewal.
In a report that was also harshly critical of the school’s operations and financial mismanagement, which left the school with a $2.8 million budget deficit, reviewers wrote that they opted out of making a recommendation because not all grades performed poorly enough to justify revocation. The school’s third and fourth grades, which the review recognized for their relatively high test scores, performed well enough to stay open.
James Merriman and Jonas Chartock, former executive directors at the Institute, both said they couldn’t recall an instance when SUNY issued a renewal report that didn’t actually make a renewal recommendation.
“I don’t know of another instance where a recommendation report did not contain a specific recommendation to either renew or not renew,” Merriman, now CEO of the New York City Charter Center, said in an email.
Since it began authorizing charter schools in 2001, the SUNY Charter School Institute has earned a reputation for closing schools that don’t meet its own high authorizing standards. In all, it has closed ten schools since 2004.
But UFT Charter School’s status is a politically sensitive one and the unusual renewal report was highly anticipated.
It also comes at a time when some charter school supporters have called on state authorizers to be more stringent when renewing struggling charter schools. Merriman told Schoolbook that that standard for renewal for authorizers in New York State — including SUNY — “is becoming increasingly low.”
When it opened in 2005, the UFT Charter School was held up by union leaders as a promising experiment that would prove a point to critics: Union contracts could exist in successful charter schools. By posting higher scores, the school would “dispel the misguided and simplistic notion that the union contract is an impediment to success,” Randi Weingarten, then the president of the United Federation of Teachers, said at the time of its opening.
But the school experienced a high rate of teacher and leadership turnover early on. Over the last seven years, five principals have been in charge of the middle and high schools; 30 teachers left the school two years ago during a staff shakeup. The school has lost dozens of students amidst the tumult and the ones who stayed have not performed as well academically as similar students who attend nearby district schools.
Executive Director Shelia Evans-Tranumn did not respond to messages left on her phone this afternoon. But in a statement provided by a union spokesman, she said school officials “take issue with some of the assertions made in the report.”
She said the school has altered its disciplinarian and school safety policies, which reviewers wrote had in past years resembled corporal punishment and contributed to the high student attrition.
“All substantiated incidents of inappropriate discipline – often involving verbal rather than physical confrontations – have resulted in further training for the staff involved,” Evans-Tranumn said. “The school has intensified its overall counseling on how to deal with disruptive behavior by students.”
High attrition was also one reason the school faces steep debt. The school lost $1 million in funding when 75 students left the school in a short period of time, according to documents provided at a school board meeting last year. The school also has to payback another $1.8 million in loans made by the teachers union.
The report also said that the school was not conducting criminal background checks for its employees. Evans-Tranumn said that the school has since updated its fingerprint files for all employees or contractors working at the school.
And students with several disabilities were not adequately being served at the school, according to the report. But Evans-Tranumn said that some of their parents “have determined that they do not want to relocate their children and believe their children’s needs are being met in the less restrictive environment of the UFT Charter School.”