Ross Global Takes on Girls Prep in Latest Charter School Space Battle

Earlier this morning, we linked to a story in the New York Times recounting the rising tensions between Ross Global Academy (which is being closed due to poor performance) and the Girls Prep Middle School (which is in search of a new home).

The article, which explores the tussle between two Lower East Side charter schools, both backed by the “moneyed elite,” is a good read. But we don’t want to bury the lead.

The Times reports: “An internal Department of Education planning document indicates that the intermediate grades of Girls Prep, a single-sex school whose lower grades are located in a public school on East Houston Street, would indeed assume Ross Global Academy’s space by September.”

As you might recall, Girls Prep was embroiled in a long battle with two traditional public schools (P.S. 188 and P.S. 94) last year, after the Department of Education decided the charter school could expand in the building all three schools share on East Houston. After the state education commissioner ruled against the DOE decision, Girls Prep was forced to rent temporary space on Cooper Square for its middle school (the elementary grades remain on East Houston).

Last night, at District 1’s Community Education Council meeting, DOE official Elizabeth Rose confirmed it is her department’s tentative plan to move the Girls Prep Middle School into the Ross Global building, at 420 East 12th Street.  The DOE is conducting an Educational Impact Statement, a legally required step, to determine whether the plan is feasible. Right now the East 12th Street building is shared by Ross Global and East Side Community High School. The impact statement is expected by February 4th, at which time public hearings will be scheduled.

But Ross is not giving in without a fight. As the Times notes, a letter the school fired off to the state commissioner makes that perfectly clear:

The letter… questions whether there was any connection involving Girls Prep’s chairwoman, Sarah Robertson, the daughter-in-law of the prominent financier Julian Robertson, and $25 million in contributions made in recent years by the Robertson Foundation to three entities closely associated with the former schools chancellor, Joel I. Klein. “We are not complaining about Mr. Robertson’s heavy contributions to public education, which are otherwise laudable, but about the attempt, once again, to favor Girls Prep over another school in consideration of those contributions,” said the letter, written by Edward J. M. Little, a lawyer for Courtney Sale Ross, the founder of Ross Global and the widow of Steven J. Ross, who was the chairman of Time Warner. The letter could easily be construed as a desperate effort to salvage a school that has faced endless problems, from violence in the school to unusually high staff turnover to poor test scores. But the school’s decision to publicize its fight throws into the open, in raw and awkward fashion, the tight relationship between the city, which has promoted the creation of charter schools in general, and the wealthy patrons of some of those schools.

The DOE, of course, disputes the allegations, saying Ross has failed to serve its students. A spokeswoman calls the charges “totally baseless and nothing more than a desperate attempt to avoid reality.” But Ross is hoping state officials will be swayed by the following arguments:

…Ross Global Academy notes that from 2003 to 2008, the Robertson Foundation donated $5 million to the Department of Education; more than $11 million to the New York City Charter School Center (on whose board Mr. Klein sits); and $8 million to the Fund for Public Schools, which was established by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Mr. Klein. Information on donations for 2009 and 2010 was not available. The city has given free space in existing public schools to many charter schools, and in 2006, when Ross was created, the city originally planned to place it in a Lower East Side building belonging to a magnet school for gifted children. Parents of that school opposed the move, and Mr. Klein relented, allowing Ross to temporarily use space inside the Department of Education headquarters on Chambers Street…  According to Mr. Little, Ms. Ross was deeply disappointed in James D. Merriman, chief executive of the New York City Charter School Center, whom she had consulted as recently as a month ago about the fate of her school. “She had no idea at the time that this was all about getting her building to Robertson’s daughter-in-law,” Mr. Little said. “She feels betrayed by Merriman because she had regarded him as a confidant and a supporter of the school.” A spokeswoman for Mr. Merriman, Kerri Lyon, said, “The conspiracy theory suggested in the letter is a sad and desperate attempt to divert attention from the fact that there are legitimate questions about whether this school should remain open.”

In a separate but related discussion last night, DOE officials acknowledged that Girls Prep received a “C” grade in its progress report this year (meaning the school performed better than only 14% of other city schools), after earning an “A” last year. Rose, the DOE representative, expressed confidence that the school would do better in the future.  Girls Prep Principal Anne Lackritz noted that the DOE’s grading methodology changed this year, possibly influencing the results. But nonetheless, she said “it’s something we are owning… we’re not proud of the results” and she promised to come back strong next year.