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Revocation Vote for Robert M. Hughes Academy Charter School

To:Members of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education
From:Mitchell D. Chester, Ed.D., Commissioner
Date:January 15, 2010


In December 2009, the Board discussed my recommendation for revocation of the charter of Robert M. Hughes Academy Charter School (RMH) based on: 1) RMH's failure to satisfy the conditions imposed by the Board in January 2009 when it voted to renew RMH's charter; and 2) evidence that during the administration of the 2009 MCAS tests, there was pervasive, systemic cheating at the behest of the adults at RMH. The charter school regulations state, among others, the following two reasons for revocation: "fraud or gross mismanagement on the part of the charter school administrators or Board of Trustees" and "failure to fulfill any conditions imposed by the Board of Education in connection with the grant of a charter" 603 C.M.R. 1.13(e)(g). The unprecedented magnitude of the MCAS cheating in the school and the history of governance issues throughout the two charter terms granted to this school have led me to make this difficult recommendation. The information that follows and the attached report (Attachment 1) on the investigation conducted by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (Department) provides an overview of what I see as a systemic breakdown of the ethical and professional responsibilities of the adults who are accountable for governing, managing, and staffing this charter school.

Representatives of the charter school have been invited to address the Board at the January 26th meeting and have chosen to do so. I have also scheduled a meeting at the school to hear from parents, teachers, and administrators. This meeting is in addition to a meeting that members of my staff held with the RMH school community on January 12th. In addition, I have consulted with the Springfield Superintendent throughout this process. I have sent a letter to all families whose children are currently attending the school to inform them of my recommendation and encourage them to exercise all possible options, should the school be closed at the end of June. The Department has received many letters and emails from parents and students regarding the revocation recommendation. Under separate cover we are providing copies of this correspondence to Board members.

This month, the Board is scheduled to vote on my recommendation. The motion before the Board is framed as a statement of intent to revoke the charter effective June 30, 2010. The school's board of trustees may, if it chooses, request an administrative hearing on the revocation which will result in a full hearing in front of an impartial hearing officer who will provide a recommendation for a final vote to the Board. If we do not receive a written request for a hearing within 15 days after the school receives notice of the Board's vote, the Board's revocation action becomes final.

Robert M. Hughes Academy Charter School

RMH is a Commonwealth charter school located in Springfield. RMH opened in 1999 and is chartered to serve grades K-8, with a maximum enrollment of 180. In 2008-2009, RMH served 184 students in grades K-8.

In February 2004, RMH received its first charter renewal. The renewal was approved with five conditions; one addressed academic concerns and the other four addressed issues relating to the governance and financial management of RMH. Condition one regarding academic performance was met, as was condition three, which required the board of trustees to hire a consultant to work with them on governance of the school. However, three conditions regarding governance were either not met or the response was problematic.

The second condition required members of the school's board of trustees who also served as members of the board of directors, officers, executives, advisors, consultants, and in any other capacity for the D. Edward Wells Federal Credit Union to immediately request an opinion from the State Ethics Commission regarding their failure to disclose this interest on their financial disclosure forms and their participation in any decisions made regarding deposits of the funds of the School with the D. Edward Wells Federal Credit Union, including deposits made in excess of the "maximum insured sum" as noted in the school's auditor's report for FY03. If the State Ethics Commission determined that any members of the board of trustees violated either the Commonwealth's conflict of interest or financial disclosure laws, those members had to immediately resign from the board of trustees. One member of the RMH board of trustees secured an opinion from the State Ethics Commission. The other two members refused to request an opinion, providing only an opinion from an attorney. These members are no longer on the board; they were subject to term limits under the revised bylaws per the fourth condition.

The fourth condition required the RMH board to revise the school's bylaws to comply with or revise in a manner acceptable to the Department provisions regarding term limits for its members. In July 2006, the school proposed terms limits of three, four-year terms (twelve consecutive years) which the Department did not find acceptable. A further revision was made and approved that reduced the term limits to three, three-year terms (nine consecutive years). The Department approved this revision in 2007.

In September 2008, sixteen months after receiving approval for bylaws changes, the school requested that the Commissioner approve a change in the bylaws back to term limits of four, four-year terms. This would have allowed for more extended membership of founding board members, including some of those who had refused to cooperate with the renewal condition regarding the State Ethics Commission. I rejected this request in July 2008. The school's board has expanded to include new members, starting with six individuals in 2006.

Condition five required the school and its board to cooperate with the State Auditor in investigating areas of concern to the Department. The board and particularly its chairperson at the time refused to cooperate and did not provide requested information. The State Auditor subsequently released a report that made numerous findings regarding the school's business practices. A copy of the report that was provided to the Board in 2006 is attached as Attachment 2.

A year ago I visited the school and met with members of the board of trustees and administrators. In January 2009, I recommended and the Board voted to renew RMH's charter for a second five-year period, once again with conditions regarding governance and academic performance. The conditions read as follows:

  1. By December 2010, Robert M. Hughes Academy Charter Public School shall demonstrate that it is an academic success by:

    1. providing evidence that, by 2010, the school has met academic growth targets in English language arts and mathematics, as established by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, or

    2. has achieved Adequate Yearly Progress in the aggregate and for all statistically significant subgroups in English language arts and mathematics in 2009 and 2010.

  2. The Robert M. Hughes Academy Charter Public School Board of Trustees shall comply with the term limits and maintain the minimum number of board members, as defined in the school's approved bylaws.

  3. By September 2009, the Robert M. Hughes Academy Charter Public School Board of Trustees shall have identified, recruited, and received approval from the Commissioner for new members with educational and financial expertise.

In fall 2009, the first year after the renewal conditions were imposed, the Department launched an investigation into irregularities in the administration of the MCAS testing at RMH because of improbably high levels of improvement, indicated by an aggregate increase of 17.1 points in English language arts (ELA) MCAS results and 24.2 points in math. The increases also appear in grade level performance that increased dramatically. For instance, in 2008, 40% of eighth-grade students scored in the failing category in math and only 26% scored proficient or advanced. In 2009, in contrast, 100% of students in the eighth grade scored proficient or advanced in math. The school has not initiated transformational changes in curriculum and instruction that might conceivably lead to these dramatic increases in MCAS performance. After the Department conducted a preliminary review of the test answer booklets, we sent a letter dated September 14, 2009 to RMH, suppressing all of the school's 2009 MCAS scores in all grades.

During the Department's subsequent investigation, it was learned that RMH employees, including administrators and staff, had engaged in widespread activities that ranged from violations of the MCAS test security requirements as outlined in the Test Administrator's Manual, to intentional and orchestrated cheating activities. Based on the Department's investigation, all 2009 MCAS scores for all grades are permanently invalidated. Notification was sent to the school in a letter dated December 9, 2009.

Because of the widespread cheating and consequent invalidation of the 2009 MCAS scores, the school has not met the academic performance renewal condition for 2009 that the Board imposed in January 2009, which required the school make AYP in 2009 as well as 2010. Moreover, the charter for this school has been renewed twice, each time with governance and academic performance conditions. With respect to the 2004 conditions, members of the board of trustees refused to comply with significant aspects of the conditions, including the requirement to request opinions from the State Ethics Commission and to cooperate with the Office of the State Auditor, who was called in to investigate financial conditions at the school. We have asked the State Auditor to conduct another investigation of the school. The renewal condition regarding term limits was imposed in 2009 to require the school to abide by the term limits in its bylaws. This condition has been met.

The school has lacked stable leadership in that three individuals have been appointed as permanent principal since 2005, with interim personnel in the position on two occasions. Furthermore, despite receiving information from school administrators that in September 2009 the Department had suppressed the 2009 MCAS scores, the school's board did not take prompt or sufficient action to inquire about the reasons the scores had been suppressed, even though the board was holding a charter that had been renewed on condition of meeting academic performance targets.

I would expect that after eleven years of operation, this charter school would have a stable and competent governing body that understands its role, has acquired the knowledge and information needed to effectively manage the school, and that supports and delivers high standards and high academic performance through the hard work and expertise of its staff and careful review of their performance. The record at RMH gives me little confidence that the school has exhibited or will be able to achieve these characteristics. Most importantly, between the history of governance and academic performance concerns and now, widespread cheating, I believe that the board of trustees and the school management have systematically failed the students of Robert M. Hughes Academy Charter Public School.

If you have any questions or require additional information, please contact Jeff Wulfson, Associate Commissioner, at 781 338-6500; or Mary Street, Director of Charter Schools, at 781 338-3200; or me.


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Report on Investigation
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Update (2006) on Robert M. Hughes Academy Charter Public School

Last Updated: January 3, 2010
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