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Camden board rejects four privately run schools

New Jersey Assemblyman Angel Fuentes patiently waited for hours Tuesday to see how the Camden school board would exercise its new power to decide whether to allow more privately run public schools to open in the city.

New Jersey Assemblyman Angel Fuentes patiently waited for hours Tuesday to see how the Camden school board would exercise its new power to decide whether to allow more privately run public schools to open in the city.

"It's up to the board if they feel comfortable" with the four proposals submitted, some of which included multiple-school campuses, Fuentes said before the vote. "The thought was that the board should have local control."

Early Wednesday, the Camden Democrat and others - even some school board members - were surprised when the board rejected all four proposals.

At least one plan - most likely the KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy designed for the Lanning Square neighborhood, next to the new Cooper University Medical School of Rowan University - was expected to gain approval. But it lost after the surprising late arrival and negative vote by board member Brian Turner. The KIPP vote was 4-4, with one abstention.

"I believe, one way or another, some way, somehow, this school will be approved," said Susan Bass-Levin, president of the Cooper University Hospital charitable arm, the Cooper Foundation, which is a partner in the KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy plan.

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

Under the Urban Hope Act, sponsored by Fuentes and passed in January, this week's vote was the first time the city had a say on privately run public schools.

Camden's nine charter schools were all been approved solely by the Department of Education. But plans for the Renaissance schools specified in the Urban Hope Act must be approved locally before they can be forwarded to the state for approval.

The Urban Hope Act, introduced in concept by Gov. Christie in Camden in June 2011, 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.

The bill's other local sponsors were Sen. Donald Norcross and Assemblyman Gilbert "Whip" Wilson (both D., Camden).

Companies could build and operate the schools and receive from each student's home district up to 95 percent of the amount the district would have spent for that student. The schools could use the money to buy or lease land and can hire companies for services without public bidding.

The effect of the new schools on the existing district factored into some board members' decisions Wednesday, they said.

Between $18 million to $22 million for each proposal would be diverted from the district in per-pupil costs, according to a quick estimate by the district business administrator, Celeste Ricketts. Because the Renaissance proposals could mean the shift of more than 4,000 students from the district and result in consolidation of schools, Ricketts said, she could not estimate the total loss or cost to the district if the proposals went through.

"The process is inadequate and incomplete," board member Ray Lamboy said before abstaining on all four proposals. "There was no analysis on the financial impact."

The largest application came from the partnership of the Norcross Foundation Inc., a charity created by the family of Donald Norcross 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 KIPP/Cooper/Norcross group proposed a five-school campus, eventually serving close to 3,000 students, in the Lanning Square neighborhood, which has not had its own school for more than a decade.

The group's proposal appeared to be the most likely to move to the state for approval, based on earning the highest score from a district review committee and on the amount of time the group spent lobbying area residents for support by promising a new school.

However, residents such as Moneke Ragsdale said they wanted a traditional public school built, not a privately run one.

School Board Vice President Martha Wilson, wife of Urban Hope Act cosponsor Gilbert Wilson, said Lanning Square was her neighborhood and she had been one of the parents trying to get the state School Development Authority (SDA) to build a replacement school. But after 10 years without even a shovel in the ground, she saw the KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy as the only option.

"What do we do? SDA won't do it, and if we sue, it could take even longer," Wilson said after her yes vote on the KIPP proposal.

Others who voted in favor of KIPP were Board President Kathryn Blackshear and Felisha Reyes-Morton and Barbara Coscarello, both of whom served on the committee that reviewed proposals. Also voting against were Sean Brown, Kathryn Ribay, and Sara Davis.

The state Department of Education could veto the board's minutes and decisions on one or all of the four applications, Wilson said. State Education Commissioner Chris Cerf was unavailable for comment Wednesday, and a department spokeswoman did not answer veto questions.

"This legislation was passed with the intent of providing additional high-quality educational options for these communities," Department of Education spokeswoman Barbara Morgan did say in a statement. "It is our hope and expectation that the Camden school board will continue to examine the proposals that come before its members."

David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, which advocates for the state's struggling districts, including Camden, said the KIPP/Cooper/Norcross group may have lost because of its "overreach."

"If [Norcross] would've proposed one school for 600 students, he would've gotten it," Sciarra said.

Bass-Levin said that the partnership's plan was to start small and grow each year. The first phase was to have 1,100 students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

"We will do whatever needs to be done to build an Urban Hope school," Bass-Levin said, adding that her group would speak with state officials this week.