Worcester school officials have asked several state agencies to investigate the financial relationship between Old Sturbridge Village and a new charter school the museum plans to open in the city.
In their complaint — addressed to the state auditor, inspector general, attorney general, and ethics commission — Worcester officials question whether the museum plans to use revenue from Worcester Cultural Academy to subsidize the museum’s operations.
Worcester Cultural Academy, which would eventually serve 360 students in grades K-8, would be the second charter school run by Old Sturbridge Village, an outdoor history museum that recreates a 19th-century New England town. The state recently renewed the charter of Old Sturbridge Academy, a K-8 charter school established by the museum in 2017 that serves 357 students.
The state Board of Education approved Worcester Cultural Academy’s charter application last month over the objection of the Worcester School Committee and state Education Secretary Patrick Tutwiler, who said he did not believe the community would be “best served by this particular school.”
In a complaint filed on Tuesday , Worcester school officials cite a letter in Old Sturbridge Village’s annual report last year in which the museum’s president, James Donahue, says the Worcester Cultural Academy would not only help the museum reach more students in a new geographical area, but also “provide reliable, contractual revenue to the museum, safeguarding us against fluctuations in uncontrollable factors that impact admission revenue such as weather and public health.”
The museum, the Worcester school officials wrote, would receive $1.7 million in management fees from the publicly-funded charter school over its first five years, though the relative expense of overseeing another charter school “would be limited,” based on discussions Worcester Cultural Academy’s founding members had with state education officials. Any use of management fees to subsidize the museum instead of the charter school, the Worcester officials wrote, would be an improper use of public funds.
The complaint also asks the state to investigate conflict of interest with several members of Worcester Cultural Academy’s board and businesses tied to the school. Additionally, the School Committee raised concerns about the charter schools’ lease agreement with the Catholic Diocese of Worcester and whether the civil rights of staff and students will be protected, noting Bishop Robert J. McManus’s decision last year to revoke the Nativity School of Worcester’s Catholic status because the school flew Black Lives Matter and Pride flags.
“Funding intended for public education should not be used to subsidize [private organizations] such as Old Sturbridge Village,” said Rachel Monárrez, superintendent of Worcester Public Schools. “We have serious concerns about the apparent conflicts of interest and Worcester Cultural Academy’s lack of a detailed plan for serving our diverse population of students. Our children deserve better.”
Donahue said there is no final lease with the diocese and that any agreements the school has will “protect the civil rights of students and staff and families and anyone connected to the school.”
In response to concerns about the museum’s financial relationship with Worcester Cultural Academy, Donahue said Old Sturbridge Village hoped to diversify its revenue while also conserving taxpayer dollars and investing more money into student programs, since the proposed management contract is “less than what the school would have to pay to hire these individuals on its own.”
“I understand the fears that can come with charter schools and I think it’s my job, and the job of everybody associated with the Worcester Cultural Academy, to prove people wrong,” Donahue said. “To prove that this will be a school that will work for all learners, to prove that it will be a school that will deliver great results for the investment.”
State Auditor Diana DiZoglio said in a statement that her office is not required to conduct municipal audits. But when an elected body votes to request an audit, she said her office will review it and decide whether to proceed.
Spokespeople for ethics commission and inspector general’s offices said they could not publicly disclose whether the matter would be reviewed. The state attorney general’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
During the state Board of Education meeting on Feb. 28, Tutwiler voted against approving Worcester Cultural Academy’s charter, citing concerns with how the school would serve multilingual learners, since its application did not provide specific research showing how the school’s education model will support those students.
Katherine Craven, chair of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, said DESE ’ s review of Worcester Cultural Academy found that it met the state’s criteria, which is one of the reasons she voted in favor of the school.
“What I’m relying upon, obviously, is the successful due diligence that’s done by the department in the same manner every time,” Craven said in an interview.
But she said an audit is always welcome whenever public money is being spent.
“There’s a lot of scrutiny on the Worcester Cultural Academy, which is very healthy,” she said.