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DANBURY Charter school faces tough climb

October 6, 2018

DANBURY — The four-year effort to open the first public charter school in the city’s history has cleared a major hurdle — but still faces obstacles before it becomes a reality.

Now that the Danbury Prospect Charter School finally received approval of the state Board of Education on Wednesday, its leaders must turn to their next and most difficult effort: Convincing state legislators to fund the new school next spring.

But with a new governor and legislature looming in the New Year and ongoing tensions over the state budget, the future of the proposal remains punctuated with a question mark.

“This is one very important step, but we still have a challenging road ahead of us,” said Dan Rubenstein, the charter group’s executive director. “We know there are still a lot of questions out there.”

The proposal has slowly crept toward approval for nearly four years, bringing home the national debate about the efficacy of charter schools among local officials, educators and parents.

With the funding debate still pending, Danbury Prospect leaders already are pushing their planned opening date to fall 2020 — back from their hoped-for opening next year and a full two years behind the opening date they had originally envisioned when they began considering Danbury.

“That’s a very tight timeline,” Rubenstein said. “We’re most likely looking at a fall 2020 opening.

“When we recruit families, we are asking them for an extraordinary amount of trust in us with their children,” he continued. “The last thing we want to do is not be able to make good on that trust.”

Heart of dowtown

Danbury Prospect is designed to become the city’s first charter schools with an eventual 6th through 12th grade preparatory school of about 550 students.

If funded, the school plans to open with about 110 sixth graders its first semester and then add a new class each year.

The school will be the first Connecticut location of the New York-based Brooklyn Prospect Charter Schools, which operates four charter schools in Brooklyn with more than 1,250 students. The schools teach curriculum known as the International Baccalaureate — an academic program that emphasizes critical thinking through in-depth reading and writing.

But still outstanding, in addition to the state funding, is a permanent location for the school.

Prospect leaders have said they are looking for a location in downtown but have yet to settle on a particular property.

They have the enthusiastic support of Mayor Mark Boughton, though, who has lauded the proposal and pledged to help find and even provide some city funding to build the school near Main Street.

If the legislature votes to fund the operation next spring, Boughton has proposed working with Danbury Prospect to develop a citywide referendum to help fund the cost of renovating a building — itself an unknown — for the new school.

The city could contribute some, the school’s benefactors more and then they could all try to convince the state bond commission to reimburse a major portion of the costs, he suggested last week.

But that idea gets to the heart of lingering skepticism about the proposal locally.

‘Education dollars’

Danbury Public Schools leaders have discussed the idea with caution, not opposing it outright this year but openly worrying that the new school could hobble their lobbying efforts to secure more state funding.

Superintendent Sal Pascarella expressed some of those concerns and questions in a letter to state education officials about whether the local district might face any immediate or long-term costs to support the new charter.

Democratic State Rep. David Arconti said he will not advocate for the charter school because of the possible financial ramifications.

“If I’m going to advocate for more education money to come to the City of Danbury, it’s going to be in the form” of public school district funding, he said. “That’s where we’re chronically underfunded. And there are so many questions too that the local Board of Education still has and that weren’t answered clearly.”

Proponents of the charter school argue its per-pupil funding is a separate item in the state’s budget and therefore won’t interfere with local district funding.

“It will be a long haul ahead with funding,” said Rachel Chaleski, an early advocate for Danbury Prospect who now serves on the school board. “My priority is of course the district ... But (the charter school) is a separate line item on the state budget.

“The legislature has made some progress with fixing the (district) funding, although it’s not as urgent as we’d like the plan to be,” she continued. “It’s about education dollars for the kids.”

Managing growth

Some school board members and Boughton also have suggested the charter could help alleviate space concerns at the middle school level, though, even after the addition of modular classrooms at Westside Middle School Academy this fall and the new addition at Danbury High School.

District officials are planning a facilities needs study to start later this year to chart out their classroom needs with hundreds of more students expected in the district every year.

Danbury Prospect’s addition could be exactly the help the district needs, Rubenstein and Boughton suggested. Prospect Schools leadership will continue to meet with local district officials as they continue to develop their plans, they said.

“This is just one other way of managing the explosive growth we’re experiencing,” Boughton said. “If there’s going to be a charter school in Danbury, this is the group we’d want leading it.

“You couldn’t pick a more top flight organization” he said. “This isn’t like the horror stories you’ve heard about in other states. They’re incredibly well managed and do great a job for their kids. And it’s got to be about our kids.”

zach.murdock@hearstmediact.com

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