|It soon became clear that a number of parents and teachers in Norwich were adamantly opposed to the idea of a charter school.|
On October 29, 1996, the Integrated Day Charter School Founding Committee—which included the three Buckingham teachers, along with eight parents and five community members—presented its proposal to the nine-member Norwich Board of Education. They wanted a school with nine classrooms for 210 students in grades K-6, open to all Norwich families. Students would be selected through a lottery process. The curriculum would be based on the existing program at Buckingham and Moriarty elementary schools.
The board was noncommittal, but the teachers and their supporters found reason to be optimistic. Although some board members had already spoken out against the new charter school law—one called it an "unfunded mandate" imposed by state lawmakers in Hartford—others seemed inclined to go along with the Integrated Day proposal. Superintendent William Juzwic was known to be an enthusiastic supporter of the existing program; it seemed likely that he would back the charter school. "School officials were impressed with a strong proposal for a local charter school given Tuesday night by a group of parents and teachers," an article in the New London Day noted on October 30.
One month later, a unanimous board gave the plan a preliminary thumbs up. A public hearing on the matter would be scheduled, and the board would make its final decision in late January.
It soon became clear, however, that a number of parents and teachers in Norwich were adamantly opposed to the idea of a charter school. Surprisingly, much of the criticism came from parents whose children were enrolled in the Integrated Day program at Moriarty Elementary. At a question-and-answer session held by the board in mid-December, parents from the school complained that they had been left out of the charter school planning process. "Can you explain to us why the application focuses almost unilaterally on the Buckingham program, its parents, and its personnel, to the near exclusion of the ongoing efforts of the Moriarty school program?" asked one mother. Some parents wondered if the creation of a charter school would spell the end of the Integrated Day program at Moriarty. Others feared the charter school would skim off the district's best students.
Charges of elitism surfaced, as well. Wendy Mathieu, co-president of Moriarty's parent-teacher organization, wrote a letter to the Day in which she accused the charter school supporters of having a superiority complex. "Why should every Norwich resident's taxes increase because a group of parents, mostly representing Buckingham Elementary School, feel their program is so much better?" she asked. Her proposal: expand the Integrated Day program to all Norwich schools, "and let the parents and teachers at each school decide which way they want to run their program."
Then there was the money issue. Some critics feared that the charter school would drain revenues from Norwich's existing schools. If approved, the Integrated Day Charter School would receive $6,500 for every student enrolled; assuming an enrollment of 210, that would amount to more than $1.3 million—money that would otherwise go to the Norwich Public Schools. (Of course, the district would have 210 fewer students.) "This is a loser for the city of Norwich," one parent told the school board members at the question-and-answer session.
Meanwhile, the school board asked the Norwich Teachers League, the local NEA affiliate, to poll its members on the charter school question. Only about one-third of the union's 319 members voted, but a slight majority of those rejected the proposed school. Barbara Myer, president of the league, believes that many teachers were put off by the Integrated Day parents, some of whom, she says, took every opportunity to bash the Norwich school system while extolling the virtues of the Integrated Day program. "It ruffled a lot of feathers," she says. "Teachers were really hurt by it." Myer singles out two Integrated Day parents in particular: Anthony Alessi and Claire Warren, longtime supporters of the program at Buckingham. "They did a lot of damning of public education," she says, "and that hurt people. And until that is stopped, then I think people will still be upset."
Alessi denies the accusation. "I never did that," he says. "I dare her to find a quote of me saying something bad about the Norwich Public Schools." The Integrated Day teachers, he says, "wanted to do something different, not necessarily better." Two of Alessi's three daughters went through the program at Buckingham, and the youngest is now a 5th grader at the charter school.
"I'm sorry that she feels that way," Warren says of the NTL president, "but there's no way that we've damned public education. We just felt the program should be available to all students in the Norwich Public Schools."
Other teachers were concerned that the charter school would be allowed to make its own rules, some of which could violate the union's contract with the district. For example, the Integrated Day proposal stated that teachers would eat lunch with their students, "family style." But teachers in Norwich were guaranteed a "duty free" lunch hour, and they weren't about to give that up. Some NTL members feared that such exceptions to the existing contract could set a dangerous precedent for future negotiations.
"Any time you try to do something different, you're going to
encounter some folks who are worried about it."
The poll of the NTL members was nonbinding, but it caught the NEA and the CEA off guard. After all, here was a model charter school proposal officially endorsed by the nation's largest teachers' union and its state affiliate, yet the local union refused to get on the bandwagon. Would the NEA stand firm? "There were discussions held about it," admits Teresa Rankin. "But we felt that our responsibility was to continue our commitment to the research effort. Any time you try to do something different, you're going to encounter some folks who are worried about it. But you have to look at the resistance and learn from it." The CEA's Robert Murphy agrees. "One of the things you have to deal with is a built-in resistance to change," he says. "So in that light, the vote was not unexpected." Besides, he is quick to point out, not all the district's teachers participated in the poll. "It was a majority of the teachers who voted who opposed the charter school," he says, "not a majority of the teachers in the district."
On January 7, 1997, about 100 parents, teachers, city officials, and students attended a public hearing at the Kelly Middle School library to discuss the proposed charter school. Proponents made their pitch one more time, but critics spoke out, too. The board listened to both sides and set a final vote for January 28.
Joan Heffernan continued to be optimistic. But it was clear that the school board had some serious questions about the proposed school. The board's lawyer spelled out some of these concerns in a 13-page letter to the Integrated Day Charter School Committee. "It was becoming obvious that there was a good possibility that they were going to turn us down," says Joyce Werden.
And that's exactly what happened. In a 7-2 vote, the board rejected the charter school application, citing, among other reasons, skepticism that the state of Connecticut would follow through with its financial obligations to the school, leaving the Norwich school district holding the bag. Before the vote, superintendent Juzwic proposed expanding the district's own Integrated Day program by 80 students, and he made clear that it would now be available to all students in the district. To many board members, the superintendent's plan rendered the charter school unnecessary. (Juzwic, incidentally, has since retired.)