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Charter school application sparks debate in Utica

James F Clay

Concern is once again rising in the cash-strapped Utica City School District as the state mulls over the possibility of allowing another charter school to open.

A group led by Christina Johnson, an educator and local resident, applied to the SUNY Charter Schools Institute earlier this year to establish the Mohawk Valley Community Charter School within the Utica School District to serve elementary-aged children.

Johnson suggests the school would provide an alternative for parents and improve the quality of education in the city. The proposed charter school has hundreds of local supporters and backing from SUNY New Paltz and the Mohawk Valley Institute for Learning in Retirement.

This is the fourth time the school's application has been submitted. Three previous times the application was withdrawn. The SUNY Board of Trustees will make the decision whether or not to approve the school, but approval doesn't come with extra funding.

Without any additional funding, the city school district and other members of the community oppose the proposal. Superintendent Bruce Karam said the district is already struggling to balance its budget and the addition of another school would only make matters worse.

"We've had to cut over 300 positions in our district, to the tune of $19.5 million … in cuts over the last three years in order to balance the budget,” Karam said. “Again, this was due to the underfunding of state aid, not getting our fair share."

Karam said the problem wasn’t with the charter school itself.

“It's just that they need to be funded separately under a separate line item from the state budget, and not coming out of the state aid revenue that the public school system gets,” Karam said. “Because it just further diminishes our resources and we have to cut more teachers and staff in order to make it up."

The Utica Academy of Science charter school opened for grades six through nine in the fall of 2013 and, amid concerns from the school district about cost, plans to expand to grade 12. The school is using a projected $2.5 million in district funds.

Karam said the Mohawk Valley Community Charter School could need $1.5 million if it's approved.

In addition to the school district, the Utica Common Council, the Greater Utica Chamber of Commerce and other area politicians oppose opening a new school.

The city council passed a resolution saying the district can't afford a new school. This year's school budget calls for more than 20 positions to be cut to close the gap and Fourth Ward Councilman Joe Marino, who wrote the resolution, said there isn't enough money in the pot to support new projects right now.

"Putting another charter school on us and having the state determine that another charter school come into the city, really puts another undue, unfunded mandate on the school district,” Marino said. “So again, it'll turn into teachers being cut, it'll turn into class sizes being increased and that in turn will lessen the effect of the education of the students that maintain themselves in the Utica City School District."

The school district said they should hear a decision from SUNY around June 1. Karam said he does not know whether it will be approved or rejected.