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Film advocates for opening of controversial Danbury charter school: ‘Educate me’

DANBURY — The yearslong effort to gain state approval and funding to establish a charter school in the city is the subject of a documentary film premiering Friday evening at the Palace Theatre.

Called “Educate Me, The Battle For School Choice,” the film includes interviews with local and state politicians and tells the story from the perspective of those who support the charter school, which they argue offers choices to parents for where their children go to school, while helping reduce overcrowding at Danbury Public Schools.

“We think that it really tells the whole story instead of little bits, you get to see from the beginning all the way to now, you really get to hear our version and our story of the struggle to bring educational choices to Danbury,” said Jose Lucas Pimentel, the CEO of Danbury-based Latinos for Educational Advocacy and Diversity, or LEAD, the group behind the film.

The term “charter school” refers to the state-issued governing document, or charter, that grants a nonprofit board of directors the conditional authority to operate the school as a public, tuition-free school independent of local Board of Education oversight.

As a report on charter schools in Connecticut notes, “in exchange for greater autonomy, charter schools are subject to heightened accountability,” and may only operate under continues review and renewal of a charter granted by the State Board of Education.

In 2018, a group of residents formed under the Danbury Charter School Planning Team partnered with Brooklyn-based Prospect Charter School to received approval to operate a charter school in the city before setting out to convince state lawmakers to fund its operations.

Earlier this year, the Danbury Charter School Planning Team dropped Prospect as its operating partner for a charter management organization Elevate, whose leader has operated Booker T. Washington Academy in New Haven since 2014.

The switch means the group will need to submit a new application to the state Board of Education. Pimentel, a former charter school teacher and advocate who became involved in the project in 2018, said Elevate is on track to submit the application by the end of the year before — he and others “gear up for the next legislative session,” where they will once again try to secure funding for the charter school.

At the same time, LEAD has set up a headquarters on Main Street at the location where the school is proposed to go. A philanthropist donated $25 million toward the construction of the school. 

LEAD is not a standalone nonprofit, but instead uses the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit education advocacy group 50CAN as it’s “fiscal sponsor.”

“This helps us not have to deal with HR, or manage funds directly,” Pimentel clarified.

Opposition to charter school 

Looking back on 2022, Pimentel described a year of “locking horns” with members of the Danbury delegation who oppose the effort and who he said fought hard to ensure funding to establish the school would not be included in Gov. Ned Lamont’s proposed budget this year.

State Rep. Kenneth Gucker, D-Danbury,  joined other members of the city’s legislative delegation in opposing the push to fund the school, which he said would negatively affect the city’s already under-funded school district.

Citing a report he requested from the Office of Fiscal Analysis, Gucker said Danbury Public Schools would lose $10.34 million in state education cost sharing grants over the charter school’s first six years of operation if the school achieved its enrollment goal of 770 students in grades sixth through 12. That estimate assumes that all 770 students would have otherwise attended the city’s public schools, among other factors. 

Pimentel pointed to a specific line item in the state’s budget each year which funds charter school operations.

“There is a line item that already gets funding, whether we have a charter school or not, that money is there,” he said. “That is a line item that is separate from the education fund that is only for charter schools.”

Pointing to Pimentel’s argument, Gucker, who said he has never spoken with the advocate directly on the matter, noted the amount of money included in the line item in each year’s budget is directly linked to the number of charter schools in the state and their total enrollment, meaning it would increase should more charter schools come online.

The state legislator also noted, should the charter school open, state law would require Danbury’s Board of Education to pay for bus services and nursing staff for its students. At a time when school officials are facing budget shortfalls could result in cuts to services, Gucker said adding costs tied to the charter school doesn’t make sense.

“You are looking at a financial pitfall of services that you are not going to be able to provide, but meanwhile if this school opens you will have to provide these services to the school and the Board of Education has to pay for it — how does that work?” Gucker said. “These are the reasons why I have a problem with the charter school — you want to open up a school, great, don’t take the money from our kids and don’t tell me it doesn’t because I have done the numbers.”

‘One size does not fit all’ 

Republican Rachel Chaleski, the school board chair who is running against Gucker in the race for state representative in the 138th District, will appear in the documentary and said she plans to attend its premiere Friday. She discussed her support for the charter school as a candidate, parent, resident, and taxpayer, but did not wish to speak on behalf of the education board. 

“I think parents want choice, I think not all students can thrive at the biggest high school in the state — one size does not fit all. The whole reason the state offers charters as an option for families is it is designed by the state along with technical schools, magnet schools, and even the failed Open Choice program that the state piloted this school year,” she said.

Chaleski, whose son attends Danbury High School and is “having the time of his life,” said her family is “fortunate enough where we can afford a private school as an option where many families couldn’t.”

“It’s the right fit for him, it’s not the right fit for everyone,” Chaleski said, noting “less autonomy” for a charter school allows teaching with less restrictions to “add a double block of math” or “extend the school day because kids need that — that goes back to closing the achievement gap.”

Chaleski also pushed back on Gucker’s assertions on the impact the charter school would have when it comes to the city’s Board of Education budget. With the school district growing by 1 to 2 percent each year, “phasing in a charter school at 110 kids per year would be kind of a wash.”

“We are already going to pay for them anyway if there are here in the traditional school or if they are in the charter school and those are two separate budget items where one should not affect the other. The other interesting thing is the delegation was willing to earmark funds to the Open Choice program, which is another funding stream and no one claims that that takes away money from the traditional schools,” she said.


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