Burlington County charter school withdraws application to expand

With only two weeks before the state was to announce its decision in the matter, a Florence Township charter school has decided to pull its expansion bid due to rising local opposition.

The board of trustees of the Riverbank Charter School for Excellence on Tuesday night voted unanimously to withdraw its application to the state to expand from a K-3 school to one that ran through the fifth grade.

In the latest such tussle in the state, the four-year-old school’s proposal touched off a tempest of opposition both from the local district and from increasingly organized parents in and outside the town. Much of the concern had focused on the financial burden that the expansion would have placed on the small K-12 district, which must pay the charter for every child who attends at roughly 90-percent of per pupil costs.

Beth Kelley, Riverbank’s principal and a nonvoting member of the board, yesterday said the tensions had grown beyond what anyone at the school expected. The board decided to do what she said was best for the students and the Florence community as a whole.

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“It just got to be too much,” she said, citing the public outcry and a petition drive against the school’s proposal. “We just put the kids first and thought about how this was affecting all the students in the township.”

Kelley said the board’s vote coincided with a family night at the school on Tuesday, and spurred considerable talk and concern.

“There were lots of discussions, phone calls, emails, and then stopping in today,” she said. “Families were understanding of our situation, but hoping it didn’t have to happen this way.”

She said decision to pull back on the expansion meant 35 students who would have conceivably stayed at the school next year will no longer have that option.

When asked if the school might try expansion at a later date, she said that had yet to be considered.”We’re thinking in the present, and what is best for the community,” she said. “We’ll stay a K-3 school, and make it the best school it can be.”

The decision also came the same day that state Sen. Diane Allen (R-Burlington) had written an open letter to both the Florence and Riverbank communities opposing the expansion as unnecessary and divisive.

Allen, a member of the Senate education committee, commended both the local Florence schools and Riverbank Charter, but said the expansion plans were “tearing the town apart. I think it would be in everyone’s best interest if the expansion application did not move forward right now.”

“I know this would be a huge concession by the Riverbank Charter School; however, I believe doing so would bring the community back together,” Allen wrote.


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