By Brenda Flanagan
“There’s a schism in this town that is so ugly and painful,” said Lisa McLaughlin.
McLaughlin’s kids attend regular public schools in Red Bank and she’s upset because they get $2,000 per pupil less in state aid than the 200 kids attending Red Bank Charter School. But the charter outrages McLaughlin and some other parents for another reason.
“Segregation is real. And I mean, Red Bank is a great town. People come here because of its diversity and its reputation for the arts. And it’s also got the most segregated school district in New Jersey,” said Wayne Woolley, Red Bank district parent.
“It just felt like one of the worst cases of segregation we had seen in a publicly-funded school,” said Frank Argote-Freyre, director of the Latino Coalition.
The issue’s long-simmering, but today the Latino Coalition and a private parents group called “Fair Schools Red Bank” filed formal complaints with the federal Department of Justice. The complaints compare enrollment numbers from the 2015-2016 school year. The student body in regular public schools was 81 percent Latino — the charter school, less than half that. Eighty-nine percent of regular public school kids qualified for free or reduced price lunches — again, half as many qualified in the charter school.
“It’s just unbelievable, and it just seems like a magnet for the white and wealthy who don’t want to go to school with brown people,” Argote-Freyre said.
The charter school’s impact on local education is a long-simmering debate in Red Bank that began with its founding in the late 1990s. In a recording of a February press conference provided by the parents’ group, school trustee Roger Foss explains the charter school was created for a specific purpose: “So as to mitigate the effect of white flight. How do you do that? You start a small public school which will offer an opportunity to those who would otherwise leave town or choose a parochial or private school.”
In 2007, Red Bank’s Board of Education filed a lawsuit over segregation against the charter, which ended with a consent agreement. The charter conducts lotteries for new students, but one parent says she was actively recruited.
“And the only reason why they approached me is because I’m white, I believe,” McLaughlin said.
Principal Meredith Pennotti said in a statement, “It’s sad this small group that seems bent on further dividing the community has chosen to file a meritless complaint against our school. The fact is our student body more closely reflects the borough’s school-age population than the district schools. How this group can willfully ignore this fact is truly an indication of how desperate they have become in their zeal to close a school that has served children of Red Bank well for nearly two decades.”
The complaint asks federal authorities to reverse and remedy the effects of the alleged segregation. It asks the state education commissioner to non-renew the school’s charter, and to place its 200 students back into the local school system.