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Rejected proposal for a Camden Renaissance school may get another chance

Persistence might pay off for those behind the KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy proposal, which was rejected in September by the Camden Board of Education in its bid to become one of the state's first privately run, publicly financed Renaissance schools in the city.

Persistence might pay off for those behind the KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy proposal, which was rejected in September by the Camden Board of Education in its bid to become one of the state's first privately run, publicly financed Renaissance schools in the city.

Officials involved in the proposal were asked to attend Monday's board meeting, said Cooper Foundation president Susan Bass Levin. Though Levin said she was unsure whether the board would vote again on the proposal, she said: "We've been clear we want to be reconsidered."

None of the people behind three other Renaissance proposals, also rejected Sept. 25, was invited to the meeting, but some plan to attend anyway.

Because of the threat of a Hurricane Sandy landfall on Monday, the board meeting might be canceled, acting Camden school board president Martha Wilson said Friday. A decision is expected Sunday.

The nine-member board unanimously rejected, with one abstention each, proposals for the Benjamin Franklin Academy, the Camden Center for Youth Development SMARTS Academy, and the Universal Cos. Renaissance School.

The KIPP proposal, designed for the Lanning Square neighborhood, next to the new Cooper University Medical School of Rowan University, was voted down, 4-4, with one abstention. The application - the most ambitious plan of the four by sketching a plan for a five-school campus - came from the partnership of the Norcross Foundation Inc., a charity created by the family of State Sen. Donald Norcross (D., Camden) and his brother George E. Norcross III; the charitable foundation of Cooper, which George Norcross chairs; and one of the nation's largest charter-school operators, the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP). George Norcross is a managing partner of the company that owns The Inquirer.

The Urban Hope Act, sponsored by Donald Norcross and signed into law by Gov. Christie in January, gave local school board officials the power to approve up to four Renaissance projects each in Camden, Trenton and Newark. Only Camden has considered the measure.

Companies can build and operate the schools and receive up to 95 percent of the amount the district would have spent for each student that enrolls in its schools.

Some board members who initially supported the concept of Renaissance schools ended up rejecting the proposals because of what they described as a convoluted application process. Problems cited included the need to redo the initial request for proposal and a delay receiving guidelines from the state.

Board member Ray Lamboy, who abstained from voting on all four proposals, said the district never analyzed how it would handle the likely exodus of thousands of children and the loss of millions of dollars.

"My abstention was on the process and looking at the appropriation of $56 million" for just one proposal, Lamboy said Thursday, referring to the KIPP/Cooper/Norcross group, which wants to build a five-school campus, eventually serving close to 3,000 students in the Lanning Square neighborhood.

"If not done right, it will cripple the district," he said.

The KIPP group's proposal earned the top overall score from a district review panel and had the backing of a number of area residents. Other residents, however, protested the KIPP plan during the board's public meetings.

Since the Sept. 25 rejection, the KIPP/Cooper/Norcross group has reached out to residents to garner more support and to board members to figure out why they voted the way they did.

Felisha Reyes-Morton, one of two board members on the review committee and a vote in favor of the KIPP proposal, said she requested the KIPP proposal be brought back for a vote.

"They were the highest scorer so initially they should've been the only ones recommended," Reyes-Morton said. "But we wanted to be fair and give a chance for all proposals to be voted on."

Now, she says, her focus is on addressing the highest scoring proposal.

Board member Sean Brown, who voted against all four proposals, said that before the KIPP proposal comes up for a second vote, the plan is "going to have to change" to get enough votes to pass. He says he hopes to ask the KIPP group Monday about issues such as the plan for special needs students and the catchment area.

Any school board member representing a board committee, such as Reyes-Morton, can ask for a vote on a resolution, said school district business administrator Celeste Rickets.

Wilson said Friday that she was willing to put the KIPP resolution on Monday's agenda if the meeting is not canceled. As for the other three, she said it would be up to the review committee to make a recommendation.

Representatives for the other proposals said they hope to get another chance.

"I find it odd that no one else was invited back" aside from KIPP," said Felix Jones, interim executive director of the Camden Center for Youth Development. "If you vote everyone down, it's all on the same . . . no matter the vote."

Universal Co. wrote to the state asking whether it could appeal the board's initial decision, spokesman Devon Allen said. The group has not yet heard back but is planning to attend Monday's meeting.

Ben Franklin Academy, whose creators also are behind the Camden Community Charter School, are focusing on getting the charter school open by next fall, spokesman Morris Smith said. The Camden Center for Youth Development also is hoping to get a charter granted for the fall if its Renaissance school plans fail.