A controversy over a proposed charter school in Cherry Hill may soon be settled - in New Jersey Superior Court.
The Regis Academy charter is scheduled to open in September, but its operator, the Solid Rock Worship Center, is $20,000 behind on the rent and missed a Jan. 3 deadline to buy the property from Holy Eucharist Parish for $2.9 million. The property encompasses the church and the proposed school.
This week, the parish asked the court's landlord-tenant law division to evict Solid Rock and grant a "Judgment for Possession" of the site in the 100 block of West Evesham Road.
"They haven't been able to come up with the money," Camden Diocese spokesman Peter Feuerherd said Friday. "This is about a real estate deal that didn't work. They didn't fulfill their commitment to come up with $2.9 million, and we're in the process of dealing with the situation."
Surprised by news of the court action, the Rev. Amir Khan, pastor of Solid Rock, said Friday that he received a lender's verbal commitment for the funds two weeks ago and will have a written commitment by next week.
Solid Rock, a nondenominational, predominantly African American congregation, will pay the full purchase price plus the back rent at settlement, the pastor said.
"Technically, I have nothing until I have the written commitment," said Khan, who still expects to close the deal with the parish and is moving ahead with enrolling students in the charter school.
"We'll have 250 [students] at our school," he said. "We already have 80 applications and two to three a day coming in."
The Regis Academy was one of four new charter schools conditionally approved in 2011 by the state Department of Education to open in September 2012.
"Each approved charter school needs to go through a readiness review in order to be eligible to open," department spokeswoman Allison Kobus said Friday.
"By June 30, each approved charter submits information on their facility and academic plan, and by July 15 the commissioner makes decisions on which schools will open in September," Kobus said. "So Regis must demonstrate a facility by June 30."
No facility, no state approval and no school.
Kahn has been part of a committee of African American pastors that has met with Gov. Christie about charter schools. Kahn said he wanted to provide an alternative for parents dissatisfied with traditional public schools.
But his plans have run into opposition over the last several months from the Cherry Hill Township School District officials and some residents, who say the charter is unnecessary in a municipality where children already get a quality education. The school would accept students from Cherry Hill, Voorhees, Somerdale, and Lawnside.
"We question whether there is a need for it," Cherry Hill School District spokeswoman Susan Bastnagel said Friday.
Sending districts would pay 90 percent of the annual cost of educating each student who attends the charter, she said. Since the Cherry Hill school board is likely to plan on about 50 township students going to Regis, it would have to set aside $600,000 - about $12,000 per pupil.
"I don't believe a large number will go to the charter school," Bastnagel said. "If Regis doesn't have a facility in which to open, that could change the discussion" when the board makes its final decision on the money issue.
Some area residents also have opposed the opening of a charter school.
"Cherry Hill is a high-performing school district," said Rita McClellan, a member of Speak Up South Jersey, a grassroots group of about 20 residents who have been fighting the planned charter. "If there's a church or a private school there, that's OK, but not a charter school."
Since moving to Cherry Hill in 2010, Solid Rock has run into other controversy, too. Last year, a man working at the church was accused of burglarizing five houses in the neighborhood.
"There's been mistrust in the neighborhood since day one," said McClellan, who is a parishioner at Holy Eucharist Church. "There's been no outreach" from Solid Rock.
Some residents "have said they don't want Regis Academy here, but it's probably a small handful of people who have the biggest voice," Khan said. "We talk to people, and they talk to us and some come to our services."