Updated May 22 at 5:40pm

Fledgling charter school survives budget scare

Michael Magee didn’t panic. More

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EDUCATION

Fledgling charter school survives budget scare

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Michael Magee didn’t panic.

The CEO of the fledging Rhode Island Mayoral Academies, Magee was working hard last month to get the nonprofit’s first charter school off the ground in Cumberland when he learned the stomach-churning news:

The House Finance Committee had recommended a $7.76 billion 2010 state budget without an expected $700,000 appropriation for the Cumberland school that Magee and his group had been counting on to open in the fall.

In years past, such an omission has been the death knell for other programs since the House Finance spending plan is often approved by the full House with few major changes.

Meanwhile, the school – called Democracy Prep Blackstone Valley – was in the midst of hiring staff members and accepting student applications.

“It would have been difficult, if not impossible, to open the school without state funding,” Magee said. “But we had some real champions at the Statehouse, and we reached out to them to confirm that they were still supportive.”

It didn’t hurt that U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan chimed in, warning during an appearance at the National Charter Schools Conference last month that Rhode Island might face difficulty securing federal stimulus money if it reduced funding to charter schools.

The lobbying worked. Even before the floor debate started, House Finance Chairman Steven M. Costantino, D-Providence, announced that $1.5 million for the Cumberland charter school and another new charter school in Central Falls – the Segue Institute for Learning for middle school students – would be restored.

With that crisis averted, the Cumberland charter school that its organizers say will revolutionize education is on track to open on time in September, Magee said.

The idea for the so-called “mayoral academies” was the brainchild of Cumberland Mayor Daniel J. McKee, but has drawn the ire of teacher unions, in part because the academy is free from having to pay prevailing wages or offering standard benefits to teachers and support personnel.

Union leaders, who also objected to the use of an out-of-state organization to run the academy, have characterized McKee’s proposal as an attempt to privatize public education.

But without those labor restraints, supporters argued, the nonprofit school operators can be flexible in their teaching methods and the lengths of the school day and school year.

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