Amid lawsuit, PVCICS seeks segregation stats for regional schools

  • Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School, 317 Russell St. (Rt. 9), Hadley. Photographed Saturday, Aug. 24, 2019. FILE PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 29, 2019

HADLEY — As a Hampshire Superior Court lawsuit filed by the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School (PVCICS) in Hadley continues, challenging the state education department over repeated denials of expansion requests, the school is also appealing to the Secretary of the Commonwealth to obtain information about segregation at other schools in the region.

A letter sent Wednesday by Boston attorney Elizabeth E. Olien of Todd & Weld LLP to Rebecca Murray, the state’s supervisor of records, asks that public records focused on segregation at western and central Massachusetts schools since 2010 be produced by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) within 21 days. It also asks that the state agency drop its nearly $9,000 estimate for searching for and producing those records, and reimburse the school for $2,730 it already paid.

“Despite attempts to amicably coordinate with the department to clarify its requests and provide funds sought by the department to cover the cost of record retrieval, the department has been evasive and continues to adhere to positions that violate its duty to comply with the Massachusetts Public Re-cords Law,” Olien writes.

“Among other things, the department has refused to state when it will provide the outstanding information PVCICS has requested and, after PVCICS paid the estimated cost, has changed its own estimate of costs dramatically upwards in a manner which suggests that its doing so is interposed solely for the purpose of delay.”

In July, school trustees filed the lawsuit against the state’s education board over its past decisions to deny the school’s expansion requests. In the lawsuit, trustees named the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) and its members, who voted June 25 to deny the school’s 2018 request to increase its maximum enrollment from 584 students to 952 students.

For the school, a key to its lawsuit against the department is obtaining data about racial and cultural segregation of students in area school districts. The school argues that a main thrust of the state passing legislation creating charter schools in 1993 was to have more racially and culturally diverse educational environments, which PVCICS says it has achieved when compared to almost all surrounding school districts.

“Integrated regional magnet charter schools are one way the state can help reverse the serious and growing segregation found in Massachusetts K-12 public schools,” Richard Alcorn, the school’s executive director, said in a statement Friday. “The state’s proclivity to insulate wealthy suburban school districts from the provisions of the state charter school law is an impediment to voluntary school desegregation.”

The school contends in its appeal that the pressure from surrounding school districts concerned about losing students to the charter school has influenced decisions by the state education department.

“Whether intended or not, by bowing to the special treatment sought by the surrounding communities, the department’s and the board’s refusal to support PVCICS’ expansion deprives students who attend de facto segregated schools in surrounding communities of the opportunity to attend a highly diverse program at PVCICS,” Olien writes.

Jacqueline Reis, a spokeswoman for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said her agency doesn’t comment on pending litigation.

As to the appeal for public records, Reis said significant records have already been given to the charter school.

“We’ve already provided, free of charge and within 10 days of the request, a voluminous production of responsive records,” Reis said. “We intend to work with the requesting party to produce relevant public records in accordance with the public records law in a reasonable time frame.”

She added that what PVCICS is seeking is a “large records request.”

“To give you an idea of the scope, the request described nine separate types of documents,” Reis said.

And while most of them related to PVCICS, Reis said, one section asked for “all documents concerning or relating to DESE’s or BESE’s consideration of any request to increase the maximum enrollment cap of any charter school in Massachusetts from 2007 to the present.”

According to the lawsuit, the state board in 2016, 2017 and 2018 “inexplicably, unfairly, arbitrarily and capriciously” denied the school’s expansion. The state approved one request in 2013 to increase enrollment so it could add high school grades.

“Since 2016, defendants have subjected PVCICS to a literal merry-go-round of unfair and arbitrary processes in which factors not permitted to be considered in connection with PVCICS’s requests for increased enrollment have been considered,” the lawsuit reads.

The lawsuit goes on to say that the education board has presented the school with “ever-shifting requirements” that don’t take into account its unique language immersion program and the demand for kindergarten-level seats at the school.

Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley cited the school as not having sufficient enrollment to support expansion when he recommended against the most recent request. “Based on the lack of compelling evidence that the school can maintain sustained enrollment under the proposed growth plan it submitted as part of the 2018 request, I did not recommend the request,” he wrote.

In a March 2017 letter, the director of the state’s Office of Charter Schools and School Redesign told the school not to apply for expansion again until it addressed several board concerns, including that it had “higher rates of attrition of students with disabilities than other schools within its charter region.”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.