NY State Sues Charter School and Department of Education

Charter schools can be divisive. Run independently on public money, they have found opposition from parents, teachers and even communities, writes Winnie Hu at the New York Times.

But officials at the Mount Vernon City School District have taken that opposition to a new level after the Amani Public Charter School won state approval to open this year.

The Westchester County district sued the State Education Department and the Amani school this year, and the district has refused to turn over state, federal and local aid money to Amani, so the state has begun paying the charter directly.

The district called the approval of the Amani school “arbitrary and capricious” and has sought to block the charter from moving forward.

“I’ve never seen a district that was just at war with a charter school like this,” Dirk Tillotson, a charter school consultant who has worked with Amani, said.

But as Amani is meant to receive $16,794 in government money for each student it enrolls, Mount Vernon officials say that this is money taken directly from its budgets. Mount Vernon officials have said that they aren’t opposing charter schools in principle, they just don’t believe they could afford to support one amid budget cuts and a new 2 percent cap on local property-tax increases.

Under a state formula the total amount Amani is set to receive is projected to be about $1.3 million this year and up to $5.4 million as the school grows from 80 to 320 students in fifth through eighth grades by 2014.

And W. L. Sawyer, Mount Vernon’s superintendent, said the district’s lawyers had advised him to withhold the money from Amani.

“Don’t strangle a district that’s already struggling,” Dr. Sawyer said.

Mount Vernon, a working-class city of 68,000 is sandwiched between affluent suburbs. Nearly three-quarters of the 9,200 public school students in Mount Vernon qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

Ruling on the district’s lawsuit in October, a State Supreme Court justice vacated the charter approval by the Board of Regents, saying that they had not distinctively found that the charter school was likely to improve student learning and achievement, and that the application did not include an assessment of the impact on area schools, writes Hu.

However, the Regents have since re-approved the charter.

David Kwee, a lawyer for the Mount Vernon district, said that district officials disagreed with the approval, pointing out that the court’s issues had not been fully addressed, and intend to meet to decide whether to pursue the matter further.