CHARLESTOWN—The town council voted Monday night to postpone discussion of the school district’s proposal to end public funding of poorly rated charter schools.
The initiative, introduced by Chariho Superintendent Barry Ricci last month, would require parents to pay for their children to attend a charter school if that school is not rated higher than Chariho public schools.
The Richmond Town Council endorsed Ricci’s proposal earlier this month, but Charlestown opted to withhold its support until after discussion of the issue at Wednesday’s school committee omnibus meeting.
Members of the public present at Monday’s meeting argued that the value of a charter school education cannot be measured by academic ratings alone.
“So often charter schools are rated for different reasons, and people have different reasons to send their children to a charter school, not necessarily academic,” said Donna Chambers. “I have a friend who sends her child to a charter school because the emphasis in the curriculum is on environmental issues. I don’t know what the rating of that school is, but she has a right…because that’s the kind of education she’s choosing for her child.”
Superintendent Ricci does not feel that this rationale justifies burdening Chariho with the responsibility of funding a lower-rated school.
“If a parent wants to send their child to a school for those reasons, they’re welcome to do so, but it shouldn’t be a taxpayer expense,” Ricci said in a phone interview.
Ricci told the Richmond Town Council last month that charter schools currently cost the Chariho Regional School District between $800,000 and $1 million each year. A study done a few years ago showed that the cost would be only $300,000 if all of those students stayed in the district, he said.
Some at Monday’s meeting, however, questioned whether it is appropriate for the school district to save money by withdrawing funds specifically allocated for a child’s education.
“The money will stay in the district for Chariho not to educate that child,” said Affordable Housing Commission Chair Evelyn Smith. “That’s stealing federal dollars to not educate a child.”
Ricci said that the question Smith raised is a common misconception about school funding, and that district costs such as teacher salaries, heating and transportation do not change when a few students elect to attend a charter school.
“Unless those kids are all coming out of one classroom, where I can eliminate the service of a teacher or of a bus, we don’t save anything when kids go to a charter school,” Ricci said over the phone.
Councilor George C. Tremblay recommended that the council seek the input of a charter school representative before making a decision.
“We need to hear the other side of this,” Tremblay said.
The council moved to continue the discussion at February’s town council meeting.
In other business, the council discussed a potential plan to construct a safe walking, running and bicycling path along Charlestown Beach Road.
“I think eventually someone’s going to get hurt on Charlestown Beach Road,” said Council President Tom Gentz, citing the narrow road and speeding drivers as potential hazards.
“I think [the path] would be something we could be proud of, and I think it would be for the health and safety of town residents,” Gentz added.
The proposed path would run along the west side of the road, behind the stone wall, and would extend from Matunuck School House Road south to the bridge before the Town Beach Pavilion. However, to build such a path, the town would need the unanimous consent of all property owners affected.
“I think it’s a great idea,” said Councilor Lisa DiBello. “I just don’t know how feasible it is.”
David Provancha, of 45 Charles Ave., agreed. “I think it’s a good idea, but I just don’t see the property owners voting to give their property away for no compensation,” he said.
Homeowners would be offering the town an easement on their property in exchange for liability protection in case of accidents that may occur on private property. Town Solicitor Peter Ruggiero emphasized that the town may not offer any monetary reward, including tax breaks, for access to private property.
Local residents who attended Monday’s meeting expressed apprehension about the plan.
“Well, it wasn’t there when I bought the house, so I’m opposed to it,” said Phil Wnek. His home at 6 Benham St. sits right on Charlestown Beach Road, and he said the road has become narrower and narrower since he bought the house.
The council voted to postpone further discussion of the plans until February, after a map is drawn up of the approximate location of the proposed path to determine which properties would be affected.
During commission reports to the council, Wastewater Management Commission Vice Chair Peter Ogle requested the council’s support for additional research into ground water nitrate levels.
Nitrate normally appears in ground water as the result of fertilizer use or septic tanks, Ogle said. Ideally, ground water should contain about one part nitrate per million parts water, and drinking water cannot contain more than 10 parts per million.
A 2010 study by a URI graduate student identified several wells in the Quonochontaug Pond area with nitrate levels between five and 10 parts per million, Ogle told the council.
A map of Charlestown drawn up during this study suggests that other areas may contain high nitrate levels as well.
“It’s not a crisis at this point, but I think it’s something that deserves the town’s attention,” Ogle said.
The Wastewater Management Commission has requested an additional $6,000 in its annual budget for nitrate sampling of sites around Charlestown, to evaluate the severity of the problem and determine whether or not nitrate levels will continue to rise. Ogle also hopes that Charlestown residents will voluntarily offer data to contribute to this research.
The issue will appear on next month’s town council agenda for discussion and potential action.