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A Massachusetts Teachers Union Votes to Kill a Successful Charter School, as Families Scramble for Answers

           Near the start of the Haverhill School Committee meeting last month, Devan Ferreira stepped to the mic to ask a few questions about the future of the school attended by two — and soon three, she hopes — of her children.

Ferreira’s kids attend a rare kind of school allowed by Massachusetts law called a Horace Mann charter, which is overseen by the local school district. Like other charter schools of its type, Silver Hill Horace Mann Charter School is unionized, and when the school’s charter is up for renewal, the local teachers union — the Haverhill Education Association — must sign off.

A decade ago, Silver Hill was a regular Haverhill public school, performing so poorly it was slated for state takeover. The principal who was brought in to turn the school around petitioned successfully to make it an in-district charter school so the staff could decide for themselves what students needed. Within three years, it was one of the most successful schools in the district. Its teachers were proud to vote yes the first time the charter came up for renewal in 2013 — and voted overwhelmingly in favor of applying for a second renewal last fall.

But earlier this year, a new union president from another school did something unprecedented — at least in Haverhill, a city of 61,000 in the northeasternmost corner of the state. After consulting with the union’s lawyer, Lisa Begley decided to extend the vote to teachers in Haverhill’s other schools. The union then circulated materials arguing — inaccurately, in the eyes of the school’s leadership — that Silver Hill’s success came at the expense of the other schools.

In June, the union voted against renewing the charter, sending the Silver Hill community into shock. Massachusetts requires schools that are closing to let parents know what happens next within 10 days, but Ferreira and her neighbors had gone weeks without answers by the time they decided to raise their concerns at the July 27 district board meeting.

“We are parents, we are planners, we are homeowners, we are participating voters here in Haverhill, and to leave more than 400 families without answers for what their school will look like,” Ferreira, one of the leaders of a foundation that raises funds for the school’s operations, said during the televised meeting. “It’s not OK that it’s taken the whole summer for this to get going.”

Superintendent James Scully snapped at her. School would start in September as usual, he said, and nothing would change in the coming year — but he couldn’t make promises about the future.

Legally, nothing can change for a little while, Ferreira pointed out, because the school’s charter doesn’t expire until the end of the coming school year. It’s what happens after that the parents are worried about.

Scully barked again, repeating himself. Mayor James Fiorentini jumped in, proposing a meeting between the superintendent and Silver Hill parents. After some contentious back-and-forth with Fiorentini, Scully said he’d sit down with the parents if the mayor would agree to attend.

“We’re not going to change anything,” he said for a third time, “but I’m not going to make guarantees.”

Scully did not return calls seeking comment for this story, but it’s not hard to imagine why he would be on the defensive. If he does what the parents are asking and keeps the features that make Silver Hill unique and successful, he won’t satisfy the union, which wants the school to revert to a neighborhood school. If he makes the sweeping changes the union argued were the reason for rejecting the charter, he will be dismantling a successful school.

The parents and Silver Hill’s founder wish that instead, the district would put its energy into helping its other schools adopt the strategies that made Silver Hill successful. But no one else is discussing that option.

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