Saturday, March 12, 2011

Crossing the line to harassment with FOILs

Several years ago a new charter school, New Roots, was started here in Ithaca, NY.  The whole issue of charter schools is a touchy one, of course, with some supporters of public schools considering them an attack on the whole principle of government schools. Certainly the charter school process in New York state is not ideal. Personally, I would like to see far less involvement of government bureaucracies and far more independence. Nonetheless, the rules for how to start a charter school are public and are--one hopes--intended to be used.

A couple of local residents, Corrine Frantz and Pat Ehrich, started a petition to try to stop the New Roots school from starting. Nonetheless, New Roots' application to be a charter school was approved, to the dismay of these two women. They even started an organization, the "Coalition for Sustainable Schools"--the name tries to turn New Roots' theme back against them--whose mission and goal is to make things as difficult as possible for the well-meaning people who started the charter school.

Pat Ehrich filed 24 Freedom of Information requests to New Roots over a several month period. Understandably overwhelmed with the huge job of starting a school from scratch, they did not respond according to the letter of the law. So Pat Ehrich shopped around for a better location for a lawsuit, and filed a lawsuit in a county a number of counties away, and got a $20,000 judgment from a friendly judge.

Over the past several years she has kept up a constant stream of accusations of misconduct or claims of misbehavior. Does this woman have no life? Why in the world is she spending so much time and effort harassing people who followed the rules that were laid out by the state of New York?

One suspects that she took their success as a personal affront. To spend so much time and energy harassing this poor group of well-meaning charter school operators...The mind boggles. Turning such a negative and destructive mission into a part-time job makes me think that this woman must be pretty unbalanced.

Just because something is legal, doesn't mean that it's right. And this kind of harassment is not right.



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  2. @ Spero: I agree with much of what you've written in your blogs and am a member of two TEA parties and the Coalition for Sustainable Schools. This piece about New Roots is very unfair, and draws some incorrect and very misleading conclusions. Frankly, this piece casts a shadow of doubt in my mind about your accuracy and trustworthiness as it is not fair, balanced or objective.

    As a member of the Coalition, I am well-informed with the details of this situation and believe I can comment with a high degree of reliability and accuracy, and (hopefully) objectivity. I also contributed personal funds to the lawsuit (without expectation of reimbursement) because I believe in the democratic process and wanted to see justice prevail. There is no agency that enforces FOIL, so citizens must act as the "Attorney General". I'll address your assertions individually.

    First: The lawsuit was NOT based upon missing a few deadlines. Clearly the judge believed this as well, as he characterized New Roots behavior as a "pattern of neglect". His awarding fees is also evidence of that, as very few FOIL judgments award fees. Six months before the case was filed, Pat obtained advisory opinions from Robert Freeman, the Albany bureaucrat in charge of overseeing FOIL. These opinions clearly spelled out that New Roots was in violation, yet they didn't care. Instead, they spun a deceptive web of victimhood typical of liberals, which you evidently swallowed wholesale.

    Second: Your conclusion that the venue and judge were "shopped" is absolutely incorrect. As has been published in the Ithaca Journal, Madison County was able to hear the case 3 months sooner than Tompkins County. Concerning the judge, it was not known who would hear the case, so your conclusion continues to be specious. Given your conservative leaning, I would think you'd support hearing such a case outside the liberal Mecca named "Tompkins". I would hope someone with your leanings would applaud citizens holding government agencies accountable for FOIL violations! I believe you are at odds with yourself here.

    Third: "Accusations of misconduct". Not true, at least not from Pat and Corinne. These two have only sought the truth about the goings-on in this school and have requested that they comply with the law, which New Roots hasn't. Any information that Pat deemed appropriate for community dissemination was released. (There is NOBODY overseeing this school on behalf of the taxpayer!) Did you know that New Roots deliberately violated the Ithaca City fire code by having students on the second floor of the Clinton House despite direct communication from the Fire Marshall that this was illegal? The FOIL violations are only the most recent legal violations, and probably won't the last. New Roots has acted illegally and then cried "foul". The Madison County trial affirmed that, but you seem willing to ignore those results and search for alternative reasons for the lawsuit's success (shopping the court; friendly judge, FOIL "harassment", etc.)
    To be continued….

  3. …continued from above

    Fourth: In a recent blog, you wrote how the left resorts to ad hominem attacks in the face of conservative viewpoints. I agree. I believe characterizing someone as "unbalanced" as you do here is such an example. Have you ever met or spoken with Pat or Corinne? Have you ever spoken to any of Pat's former students? Do you truly know why they have taken up this cause? I suspect the answer to these questions is "No", or you might draw very different conclusions. Frankly, in the apparent absence of any REAL information about this, I wonder what foundation you have for your opinions and conclusions.

    As someone who seems to care about free thought, consider this possibility: perhaps these two citizens care very deeply about educating children in our community, and view Albany's decision to siphon funds from a successful school district (ICSD) by locating a failing charter school in it as undemocratic. Do you support an educational model that believes Albany can manage our educational needs better than we can? (local government governs best, right?) Do you support an educational model that allows school administrators to hand-select their Board, or do you support the democratic process of electing Board of Ed members from our community? The charter model allows for appointed boards, meaning your tax dollars are being spent WITHOUT your representation. Imagine what Ithaca schools would look like if the liberal administrators could select their Board!

    Lastly, do you support a school that preaches Social Justice, because New Roots does. I would think this flies directly in the face of our movement.

    I originally thought charter schools were good in that they provide some "competition" to public schools and strike a blow to the teachers union. However, the NYS charter school movement suffers from some fatal flaws. For starters, the community has no say in whether the school is founded. The only requirement is that the applicant provides evidence of support, which New Roots did by circulation a misleading petition at Green Star and other liberal places. At the approval meeting in Albany in January 2009, a SUNY board member cited as additional "community support" a poll showing over 80% approval for New Roots in a local newspaper poll. The "poll" was on-line in the Ithaca Times that had run for one day, and included ~ 35 respondents that could cast multiple votes! This is the type of misleading information that has characterized this school’s formation and prompted the Coalition to post their own on-line poll that garnered over 1,200 signatures.

    The effort to monitor this school will continue, and there are many new facts the community will learn shortly. If you truly care about the truth, stay tuned and keep an open mind.

  4. Thanks for providing your point of view on this. I'm not in favor of New Roots theme at all, but do think that they have the right to create a school centered around it, despite the fact that I personally dislike it.

    I also think that the New York charter school process is fundamentally broken. Vouchers would be a much better method of implementing this.

    It's difficult to judge other people only by what you read in incomplete, possibly biased accounts, and I'll be interested to see what comes out in the future.

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