Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Suit seeks to derail Camden Renaissance schools

A group of Camden public school advocates and parents has filed a lawsuit against the state education commissioner, saying he did not properly assess the "financial and segregative impact" of approving two Renaissance schools to open in the city.

A group of Camden public school advocates and parents has filed a lawsuit against the state education commissioner, saying he did not properly assess the "financial and segregative impact" of approving two Renaissance schools to open in the city.

Mastery and Uncommon Schools were approved July 7 by acting Commissioner David Hespe and opened elementary schools earlier this month.

Save Our Schools New Jersey, a group that has frequently been critical of the new administration of the state-run district, has asked Hespe to rescind his approval of the schools.

The lawsuit claims the Renaissance schools would drain traditional public schools of needed funds and exclude disabled and minority students - an impact they say the commissioner failed to consider in his one-page approval.

Mastery and Uncommon, along with KIPP, which was approved in 2012, have contracts with the district to collectively serve more than 9,000 students in the district of 15,000 by 2024.

Of the 15,000 students, 11,500 currently are in traditional public schools and 3,500 are in charter schools.

"The schools must not be allowed to open . . . under a cloud of constitutional and statutory uncertainty," said Princeton-based attorney Richard E. Shapiro in a letter to Hespe days before the suit.

The lawsuit was filed Aug. 21, but Save Our Schools member and Camden mother MoNeke Ragsdale, one of three people named as complainants in the suit, said the group wanted to wait until after the school year started to announce the legal action.

The lawsuit makes claims that both Mastery and Uncommon dispute, including that the nonprofit organizations serve fewer students with disabilities and fewer English Language Learners than regular public schools.

Rally at school board

A gathering Thursday evening outside the Board of Education's Front Street headquarters to announce the lawsuit included many familiar faces from school board meetings and rallies.

"The plan is to bring in more charters to close public schools and then make [the buildings] available to those charters," said former school board member Jose Delgado. "What people need to understand is, this isn't just happening, this is a plan that was hatched two years ago."

Carmen Crespo, who has three children in the district, spoke to the small assembled crowd and said she blamed the district's allocation of Renaissance school funding - the charterlike schools receive from the district 95 percent of per-pupil costs - for a perceived teacher shortage in the traditional public schools.

The district laid off 206 teachers last year to help bridge a revenue gap. Crespo said that this year, the district has more than a dozen substitutes filling in, including in her son's first-grade classroom.

"It seems as though our public schools," Crespo said, "are being set up for failure."

60 teachers fewer

Camden schools spokesman Brendan Lowe said that between May and the start of school, 60 teachers separated from the district through retirement, relocation, or for other reasons. He said not all of those positions had been filled.

Sister Karen Dietrich of the Camden Catholic School Partnership came to hear what Save Our Schools had to say. She said she also wanted to bring the Catholic schools' voice to the conversation. More than 1,000 students attend Catholic schools in Camden and Pennsauken, but they could enroll as many as 200 more, Dietrich said.

"We just want to be recognized. We feel a bit like Clark Kent," she said. "Everybody's waiting for Superman and walking right past us."

Camden's state-appointed school superintendent, Paymon Rouhanifard, has said the permitted Renaissance school enrollment number was a maximum and would likely never reach 9,000.

He has said his administration also has entered into a contract with Mastery and Uncommon requiring the nonprofits to serve special-needs students with the most significant disabilities. The Renaissance schools will be required to pay for students who may ultimately be placed elsewhere.

It's an incentive, Rouhanifard has said, for the schools to provide on-site the services special-needs students need.

The lawsuit also alleges that Mastery's and Uncommon's use of temporary public facilities would be illegal unless the state Legislature passed an amended version of a Renaissance school-related measure that was conditionally vetoed by Gov. Christie.

However, in vetoing the measure, Christie did not change anything related to the use of temporary facilities by Renaissance schools. His main change was to strike a provision that would have given early-retirement incentives to teachers in Camden.

Access to details

The lawsuit also claims that the public wasn't given access to the details of the proposals and the contracts prior to public meetings.

The state declined to comment, citing the pending litigation. It has a few weeks to respond to the claim.

On Thursday, Mastery CEO Scott Gordon called the suit "without merit."

"It is disappointing that some folks want to stop Camden parents from sending their children to the schools where they believe their children will get a great education," Gordon said. "We are honored to serve 400 families this year, including a large number of families with students with special needs or for whom English is their second language."

Uncommon Schools spokeswoman Barbara Martinez said: "Camden families brought their excited kindergartners to school last week at Camden Prep, and already, those students have started to learn about the parts of a book, new vocabulary words, and counting to 10. . . . Why a group based in affluent Princeton, New Jersey, would seek to take successful school options like ours away from Camden Prep families is beyond us."