Enrollment dispute between Chinese charter, Pelham heats up

Thursday, August 10, 2017

AMHERST — Tensions between officials at the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion School and Pelham school district over an enrollment dispute have escalated in recent days.

The head of PVCICS, Richard Alcorn, is challenging claims from the state education department that his school made an “error” that lead to an unexpected budget shortfall at Pelham Elementary school.

Pelham school officials have said that they were notified in June, eight days before the start of the fiscal year, that two students living in Pelham had been attending the Chinese Immersion Charter School.

At the time, a spokeswoman at the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education told the Gazette that the charter school had made an error in an October filing by initially listing two students as living outside Pelham.

The later correction of that information, coupled with two more charter students listed as part-time Pelham residents, means that the school has to cover the $67,000 price tag for those students’ charter tuition after the district’s budget had already been finalized.

Alcorn argues otherwise. In a letter sent to Pelham and top state school officials on July 31, he said those two students’ families had simply moved before the start of the school year, and then later provided updated residency information. That October report reflected the information those families had provided his school, Alcorn said.

State education department spokeswoman Jacqueline Reis, though she called the discrepancy an “error,” had previously told the Gazette that a similar situation could result from students moving during the school year. In other words, under the current system of reporting charter school enrollment, the situation currently facing Pelham is one that any school could face without any error made.

Reis said Tuesday that the education department would “explore what options might be available” for potentially changing the charter school enrollment reporting periods to give sending districts more time to plan their budgets. However, no decisions to change that process have been made, she said.

Alcorn went on to assert in his letter that his school notified Pelham via email in November and again in February that students from Pelham were attending the charter school.

“Newspaper reports that the Amherst Pelham Regional Schools were only recently notified that elementary age Pelham students were coming to PVCICS and denied time to make budget adjustments is inaccurate and we respectfully request you cease from making this false claim moving forward,” Alcorn wrote.

Pelham school officials, however, say that claim is inaccurate, taking issue with Alcorn’s assertion that they knew those students were attending the school, and knowingly made false statements to the press.

“We rely solely on verified reports from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to apprise ourselves of charter school enrolment,” Pelham School Committee Chairwoman Cara Castenson wrote in a response to Alcorn on Aug. 7. “None of those reports during the 2016-17 school year, until that of June 22nd (by which date our FY18 budget had already been passed), contained any charter school enrolment for Pelham.”

Michael Morris, Amherst-Pelham Regional School District’s interim superintendent, reiterated that point.

“The state (wisely, in my opinion) put in place a process through which they receive information from charter schools, verify the information, and then send the accurate information to districts to avoid awkward communication between charter school operators and local school districts,” Morris wrote on Aug. 7, adding that those state reports listed no Pelham students attending the charter school until the final June 22 reporting.

Alcorn also included in his letter two paragraphs about Pelham’s budget, saying that the Pelham school district itself relies heavily on school choice and that the district’s financial situation is not new.

“We point this out to dissuade the notion that students from Pelham choosing to attend PVCICS are the principal source of the PES budget shortfall,” Alcorn wrote. “It is just not so.”

Both Castenson and Morris took issue with those paragraphs.

“As a school committee member, I understand quite clearly the issues we face, and did not feel that I needed to be lectured about them before DESE and the Interim Commissioner,” Castenson wrote in reply, referring to the fact that education department officials were included on Alcorn’s letter.

Pelham is asking the state education board to consider 2018 as the students’ first year enrolled at the charter school in order to provide the district time to deal with the financial hurdle of having to pay those students’ tuition.

Under Massachusetts’ school funding formula, the state is supposed to reimburse school districts for 100 percent of net increased tuition costs in the first year that a district student goes to a charter school and 25 percent for the next five years. State lawmakers have not appropriated the money to fully reimburse districts since 2012, however, and the department has been reimbursing only the first year.

Pelham school officials are holding two meetings at the school for families and staff to inform the about the issue. The first meeting will on Aug. 9 at 9 a.m., and the second on Sept. 6 at the same time.