ITHACA, NY – New Roots charter school says its request to lower its enrollment cap is a routine, minor issue. On Tuesday, some Ithaca School District Board of Education members suggested that the change is actually an effort to skirt regulations and keep the “failing” school’s doors open.

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Critics, including some school board members, said that since New Roots is required to enroll a minimum number of students, based on that enrollment cap. If they fail to do they risk their charter not being renewed.

New Roots Principal Tina Nilsen-Hodges says that there are charter schools as small as 50 students, and that there is no hard and fast rule on enrollment.

“Disdain for the public process”

During Tuesday’s meeting, only two members of the public spoke, both of them speaking vehemently against New Roots request, and against the school in general – a strange contrast to a similar hearing in 2012 in which 42 people spoke, 35 of them in favor of New Roots, according to a report from the Lansing Star.

The two women who spoke, Corinne Frantz and Pat Ehrich represent the Coalition for Sustainable Schools, which has opposed New Roots from the very start, per a 2009 Ithaca Times story.

Frantz and Ehrich weren’t the only ones to speak. Three members of the Ithaca School Board of Education, speaking in unofficial capacity as community members, also spoke at length about their frustrations with New Roots and the Albany bureaucracy they say does not hold the charter school accountable.

Board member Brad Grainger said he was “appalled” that New Roots did not show up for the hearing, saying it showed a “disdain for the public process.”

“They believe the fix is in… so they can’t be bothered to show up to speak for themselves. It’s very unfortunate,” Grainger said, referring to the fact that ultimately the revision request is in the hands of the the SUNY Charter Schools Institute.

Nilson Hodges explained that the school was under no obligation to attend the hearing. The purpose of the hearing, she said, is to collect public feedback that will be forwarded to the SUNY Charter Schools Institute (CSI). New Roots held a press conference the week before to begin soliciting community feedback directly.

She went on to say that such changes were standard for charter schools, and that the bigger crowd at the 2012 hearing was a reaction to a “different time” when the school was less established and under heavy fire from certain vocal critics.

“In retrospect, I never would’ve used all that time and energy for such a minor issue,” she said. “It’s just part of how charter schools function. It’s not a large event where we need to call on the community and divert attention away from programming and academics.”

During the hearing, Corinne Frantz said that the way New Roots was brushing off of this issue as minor and routine was “more smoke and mirrors.”

School board members criticize New Roots, Albany

Grainger also shared a sentiment that Frantz and Ehrich brought up – that New Roots reasoning behind the size reduction is because the school must fill a certain percentage of its maximum enrollment or risk their charter. By lowering the cap, they also lower that minimum.

“I know they’re trying to manipulate things for their next application, and quite truthfully I don’t believe that the reviewers care,” Grainger concluded.

School board member Pat Wasyliw leveled similar criticism at the bureaucracy that supports charter schools. “No one is looking out for communities that have to support these schools. There seems to be no willingness or mechanism on the part of Albany to tell a charter school that it’s in violation of its charter.

She continued, saying that charter schools are supposed to meet at least 80 percent of projected attendance and are supposed to outperform public schools in terms of academics – both of which are metrics New Roots has continually fallen short of. For the class of 2015, New Roots had a 79 percent graduation rate, compared to Ithaca High’s 94 percent.

Nilson Hodges noted that the school was launching a project to better track the “upward growth” of its students and also a way to better capture and give weight to the anecdotal evidence that is often presented in defense of the school.

Related: New Roots superintendent calls 51 percent graduation rate ‘utterly unacceptable’

Wasyliw said that the demand for what New Roots offers simply isn’t there. In addition to the declining attendance numbers, she noted that the majority aren’t from the Ithaca school district and many come in from up to an hour away to attend the school.

School Board President Robert Ainslie was the last to speak, and also spoke to New Roots poor numbers. “It’s an institution that is declining enrollment… that’s not a positive… I’m not sure, frankly, how they can keep the doors open and pay their bills.”

Why the intense opposition?

Why do some school officials and members of the public have such a problem with New Roots? There are two angles:

First, as educators, those who spoke were upset that New Roots, given it’s poor graduation rate is not properly serving its students and preparing them for the future.

More immediately, however, is a financial reason. The money used to fund charter schools comes from school tax money. School districts are required by the state to pay for every student that attends a charter school.

Ehrich said that ICSD gives New Roots roughly $1 million per year. “Couldn’t we serve those kids better with that $1 million?,” she said. “We’re talking over $7 million dollars now.”

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Michael Smith

Michael Smith reports on politics and local news for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached via email at msmith@ithacavoice.com, by cell at (607) 229-0885, or via Google Voice at (518) 650-3639.