Up next: Charter group that battled NYC mayor targets Connecticut

The homepage of the charter advocacy group's homepage. Picture is from a recent rally in front of New York's state capitol.

The homepage of the charter advocacy group's homepage. Picture is from a recent rally in front of New York's state capitol.

A charter school advocacy group founded by Wall Street players that recently took on New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio — and won — is now taking on Bridgeport’s locally elected school board, which opposes the state’s potential opening of two new charter schools in the district.

“Members of the Bridgeport Board of Education have committed to filing legal action to block the opening. In advance of that possible legal action, [Families for Excellent Schools] has placed radio ads to highlight parent and community support for the two schools,” a press release from the nonprofit reads.

The executive director of the New York-based group said it would not disclose how much it intends to spend on its advertising campaign in southwestern Connecticut or the source of its funding. Federal law does not require such disclosure for this type of nonprofit.

A tax filing by the group from 2011 — the most recent available — shows that four of the five board members of Families for Excellent Schools have ties to Wall Street. Paul Appelbaum, the chairman of FES, is the principal at Rock Ventures LLC. Bryan Lawrence, vice chairman, runs an investment firm.

Asked how FES is paying for its Connecticut operations, Jeremiah Kittredge, the group’s executive director, said in an interview at the state Capitol Wednesday that the funding stream is not what’s most important.

“We’re most proud of the thousands of families that have advocated for better school options for their kids and care most that their voices are front and center,” he said.

State law requires organizations to file reports on their lobbying activity with the Office of State Ethics if their efforts relate to state action. FES has three lobbyists registered with the office, including Kittredge. However, the organization has not reported the expenditure of any money to influence pending legislation during the current legislative session.

The legislature is considering legislation that would provide the state funding to open three new charter schools next school year, including one in Bridgeport. FES is allowed to spend an unlimited amount of money from anonymous donors on the issue.

Nonprofits don’t have to report who funds them, but they have to say who they give money to. This means that if a foundation gives a group money, it shows up in the foundation’s federal tax filings. A search for FES on Citizen Audit, a good government nonprofit, shows the charter organization has ties to several foundations, including the Walton Family Foundation.

Bridgeport’s Board of Education has voted to formally ask the state to place a moratorium on opening additional charter schools. Board members have said they are exploring a lawsuit because of their concern that the district will be responsible for picking up some of the costs of opening these new schools.

“It siphons money from a district that is grossly underfunded,” Bridgeport school board member Howard Gardner told state education officials earlier this month before the State Board of Education unanimously approved opening additional charter schools in Bridgeport, pending the availability of state funding.

In New York City, when the new Democratic mayor tried to block the opening of three new charter schools, FES spent $3.6 million over three weeks in March attacking de Blasio, the New York Daily News reported. The New York General Assembly in the end appropriated the funds for the charters and adopted increased restrictions on what the city can do to limit the activities of the schools, The New York Times reported.

A lawyer with Connecticut’s Office of State Ethics said it remains to be determined if information on FES’s advertising campaign in Connecticut would need to be filed with the office. “It depends on the nature of advertisement and if it’s aimed at state action,” Peter Lewandowski said.

The language in the FES advertisement is vague, mentioning the two new charter schools that have already been approved by the State Board of Education, simply saying, “It’s a new day in Bridgeport. Let’s keep fighting to ensure even brighter ones.” (Read the radio advertisement transcript here.)

FES reports that it is a “parent-driven organization,” with more than 1,500 members in Bridgeport. Its tax filings show that in 2011, of the $970,397 the group reported spending, it spent $98,795 on “parent stipends.” Kittredge said this expense was made to hire full-time parent organizers.

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