UNION — Just as abruptly as it was postponed, the successful Middle and High School Academy was reinstated this week with little fanfare, publicity or explanation.
The program began Tuesday with an enrollment of more than 300 students, but the district was tight-lipped about the reversal or what changed since the decision was made to postpone the academy in October.
The brainchild of Superintendent of Schools Patrick Martin, the academy debuted three years ago with just 50 students opting to attend as compared to this year when more than 300 students enrolled and paid to attend.
The superintendent also started a ground roots innovative Saturday Academy in 2010, which, like the weekday academy program, focused on high standards, advanced classes and a goal of increasing student performance.
Since then, interest in the program has grown steadily with students and parents alike eagerly embracing the concept of an academy, despite having to get up early or stay after school to attend special classes.
The fact that the program was reinstated elated parents and educators alike, but they also harbored bitterness about how the matter was handled by some of the school board members.
Jeff Monge, one of the parents that battled to see the academy continue as originally scheduled, explained that over 150 parents signed a petition to keep the academy running and he felt this may have helped turn things around.
But that did not stop this parent from expressing outrage over the anguish that took place when the academy was jeopardized.
“It is very unfortunate that you have to fight your own school board to maintain educational programs that work. It was extremely disappointing to see the tactics to try and stop this program,” said the father of two.
Monge said even though the program was reinstated, a planned overnight educational trip to Philadelphia was eliminated.
“The public never had the opportunity to speak on their plans to nix the overnight trip because the school board’s intentions were never previously shared nor put on the agenda provided to everyone after the open comments period at the school board meeting,” Monge said, noting that parents attending the October school board meeting were silenced and never offered the floor by school board president Ray Perkins.
“It’s pretty disgusting that an elected official would have so little respect for the very same parents and children that he is suppose to be representing,” the parent added.
Erwin Jaeger, vice president of the Union Education Foundation, also spoke out on the issue, noting that he is a retired Union School District science supervisor for grades K-12.
“I’m very glad the academy concept for the middle school students and ninth-graders will now be made available,” he said. “This is truly a wonderful learning experience for these youngsters. The district should be very proud and honored to have this innovative and educational concept made readily available by Dr. Patrick Martin, superintendent of schools, especially for these students of Union.”
Sue Lipstein, president of the education association, was also more than pleased about the turnaround.
“The Union Education Foundation has supported the academy since day one. It is only one example of Dr. Martin’s creative and innovative leadership, as well as an example of how he wants our children to reach as high as possible,” she said, adding that the educational values of the academy are “almost incalculable.”
Lipstein, who attended the October school board meeting, also admitted she was disappointed by the decision of the board to cut the promised overnight Philadelphia trip, which the board voted on and approved at the Aug. 20 meeting.
“Parents should have been given the right and courtesy to speak on the issue,” she said, adding “students have learned a hard lesson.”
Until this fall the entire school board was completely behind the academy, but in October that all changed.
In mid-October, after a marathon three-and-a-half-hour meeting where parents and students came out in force to ask the school board to reinstate the academy, it appeared little could be done to stop the postponement.
At issue was whether a sudden spike in enrollment had anything to do with students in the federally funded free lunch program, whose $175 academy tuition is paid for by the school district. Perkins was concerned the spike could be the result of parents who wanted their children to attend the program but did not want to pay the fee. He wanted an immediate audit to take place so any “fraud” could be uncovered.
Martin was very upset that parents could possibly end up being prosecuted and that was of grave concern to him.
Perkins, however, had his own concerns. He felt that because the district had been targeted in a 2011 audit by the federal government for having unqualified students in the free lunch program, it could happen again. He said if the federal government checked on the school district again and found students enrolled in the free lunch program were not qualified in addition to receiving free academy tuition from taxpayer dollars, that would be the equivalent of “double fraud.”
In 2011 the district was fined $20,000 by the federal government when it was discovered students who were not qualified were enrolled in the free lunch program. It remains unclear why the issue of parents defrauding the district even surfaced this year.
Regardless, Martin agonized over putting the academy in jeopardy. Eventually, though, he decided he would not put any parent in the position of being accused of fraud.
So the superintendent regretfully sent an email out to parents whose children registered for the fall academy, explaining it would be delayed.
At the October school board meeting that followed Martin’s email, parents jammed the room to express outrage over the academy postponement while supporting Martin for his innovative and persistent stance on educating their children.
Martin was emotional that night as he tried to explain the reason behind postponing the academy.
“The problem is fraud, and fraud is a crime,” Martin said, adding he would be very uncomfortable if any school district family not entitled to the free lunch program registered for the academy, received free tuition, and then was charged with a “double fraud.”
The superintendent repeated multiple times at the school board meeting that he “loved the academy” but he refused to let any school district family get in trouble with the law.
Martin explained it was not until after he postponed the academy that he discovered only 25 of the 312 applicants were actually enrolled in the free lunch program. This, he added, changed the urgency of the situation. Perkins, though, would not agree that the situation was not as dire. In fact, it was not until the marathon meeting was nearing the end that the school board president finally admitted there was something else bothering him about the academy.
“We need to make sure these programs are available to all kids,” he said, pointing out that while the children of parents attending the meeting would be okay, “what about the kids that aren’t here?”
School Board member Linda Gaglione felt all students should benefit from money taken out of the school budget for the academy, referring to students whose tuition was paid by the district.
By the end of the October board meeting it was apparent that Perkins had no idea how long it would take to audit the free lunch program applications, and he refused to be pinned down. When parents began loudly expressing their displeasure at what took place that evening, the school board president blamed Martin for postponing the academy.