Schenectady County

Schenectady charter school proposal assailed at hearing

Residents overwhelmingly opposed a proposed charter school at a Wednesday night public hearing, but

Residents overwhelmingly opposed a proposed charter school at a Wednesday night public hearing, but organizers said they have many supporters who simply didn’t feel brave enough to speak out.

Many residents said the charter school would cost too much money — about $1.8 million in its first year, and $5.6 million in 2018.

While the Schenectady City School District would teach fewer students if the charter school opened, residents said fixed costs would not go down. A classroom with three fewer students needs the same number of teachers. Residents said they fear services would have to be cut to provide for the charter school.

“They cut into the school budget,” said Claire Covey in an email that was read into the record. “Charter schools are, in my opinion, nothing more than a private school run with taxpayer money.”

Others called the funding system “unfair” and “unreasonable,” while school board member Ann Reilly’s husband said the cost could jeopardize the district.

“I think the charter school really is a threat,” Donald Liebers said. “Our school budget is being squeezed everywhere, and we see these great programs, developed by Schenectady, threatened as a result.”

Charter board Chairwoman Pamela Swanigan said she doesn’t like the way charters are funded either, but called the cost “nominal.”

She represents a group that wants to put together its own charter school, using practices from a variety of other schools. The charter must be approved by the Board of Trustees of the State University of New York, which is the next step.

At the hearing, two residents said the charter school could help students. Sharon Stevens, a city resident who would be on the charter school’s board, said she sees many caring teachers in the district.

“They’re doing a fantastic job, we just need choices,” she said.

She added that some classrooms are overcrowded and some children focus on “keeping up” with popular clothing styles. The charter school would have a dress code and an assistant in each classroom.

“I now see the need for another charter school,” she said, citing those plans. “Two teachers to give individualized instruction. … Please respect our choices.”

Resident Will Vining said the charter school could also help the district improve.

“You can use the charter school as an opportunity to test policies on the small scale and get the evidence you need,” he said.

But others questioned whether the charter school could be trusted. In a district where voters replaced nearly the entire school board just three years ago, residents said they wanted more say in the charter school.

Tom Della Sala wrote an email for the public hearing criticizing the charter school because no one will be allowed to vote on the charter board members. Fellow resident William McColl said the charter board was “undemocratic.”

Liebers also questioned why the charter was not organized by Schenectadians. The board chair lives in Niskayuna. and only one board member lives in Schenectady.

McColl and others also said it wouldn’t be fair to provide specialized instruction to only a fraction of Schenectady’s children.

“Separate is inherently unequal,” McColl said.

After the meeting, charter board member Wes Holloway said angrily that residents “had no idea” what inner-city black children faced in the school district.

“They talked about the [International Baccalaureate] program. Very few people of color in the IB program,” he said of the district’s program for high-achieving students. “They don’t realize many of them are not getting the educational foundation to enter first grade. And they never get caught up.”

The charter school would offer an extended day and a longer school year to help students catch up.

Swanigan said residents were wrong to criticize board members for not living in the city. She said 190 parents want the charter school, but said it’s ludicrous to believe they could organize it by themselves.

“They are teen moms of teen moms of teen moms,” she said. “How do you expect them to write a 200-page application, for God’s sake? They don’t know education law. We who are educated, it’s our obligation to help them.”

They would not speak at the hearing, she said, because they were afraid.

“A lot of them haven’t had a good experience in school,” she said. “They will not confront a huge institution because they don’t feel they have the wherewithal to do it.”

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