Camden approves charter school operator to run five schools

A proposal to build up to five new “renaissance schools” in Camden under the fledgling Urban Hope Act passed a key hurdle early Wednesday (11/28) morning as the Camden school board gave the go-ahead to the controversial plan.

But with the board and the plan’s backers advancing to the next phase — going to the Christie administration for expected final approval — it appears that key details still need to be resolved within what will be a tight timeframe.

The proposal by a partnership of the Cooper Health Center and its foundation and the national KIPP network of charter schools won the backing of the board in what was a contentious meeting that didn’t end until after 2 a.m. on Wednesday morning.

It was the second time the board had voted on the plan, which previously fell a vote short. In a meeting held predominantly behind closed doors Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, the board reconsidered and approved the plan with just one dissenting vote.

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But the resolution approving the measure left open some uncertainties. The board still has to sign off on specifics of the proposal, which calls for five schools to be build by the partnership and run by KIPP over the next decade.

The closed session was to negotiate the contract that will include those details, so it was allowed under the state’s Open Public Meetings Act, officials said.

A section added to the resolution after the closed session reads: “This resolution is expressly subject to and conditioned upon the Board and Renaissance School provider negotiating and mutually agreeing to a contractual agreement, same requiring formal approval by the Board prior to submission to the Commissioner of Education.”

The various parties in the meeting said they agreed not to divulge even the topics discussed until a final deal was struck. But the resolution approved by the board after the closed session said that fundamentally the initial proposal would proceed.

Once the contract is resolved, the next step is to pass the plan to state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf for final approval, which is all but certain for a commissioner who has been pressing the board to proceed on a plan within the Urban Hope Act.

The law passed last winter allows private organizations to build and operate quasi-charter schools in three selected districts – Camden, Newark and Trenton – with approval of the local board and the state.

Camden is the only of the three to take up the idea so far, requesting proposals and ultimately picking the Cooper/KIPP proposal out of a total of five submitted. The proposal had been by far the highest profile of the bids, with the backing of George Norcross, the Cooper chairman and powerful Democratic Party leader in South Jersey.

But the state approval is just one step, as the parties also still need to negotiate the purchase of the property next to Cooper’s healthcare campus in Lanning Square from both the state and the local district.

The property is owned jointly by the district and the state’s Schools Development Authority, which had been slated to build a district school on the site until plans were stalled and the KIPP plan emerged.

Susan Bass Levin, president of the Cooper Foundation, said the plan is still to build and open a new school by September 2014, but that means construction would need to start no later than spring.

“We will work hard, and we will work fast,” she said yesterday. “It’s doable. We had hoped for the construction to be completed a couple of months before the opening, and that timeframe will be tighter now.”

Bass Levin would not discuss the issues also still to be resolved with the local board, only to say they would be taken seriously. One press report said those issues have to do with the size and scale of the proposal and the pace at which it will be phased in. The plan is to start with one Lanning Square school, and grow into four more in the city.

Levin would not confirm that, but agreed there was work to do. She and other backers of the proposal were part of the closed discussion yesterday.

“The board raised several issues, and we will work to resolve the concerns in a way that will be in the best interest of the children,” Levin said.

The president of the TEAM Charter School network – part of the KIPP program, one of the nation’s largest charter school operators – also expressed confidence the issues would be resolved.

“We are excited and grateful to the Camden board for approving our proposal, and look forward to negotiating the remaining provisions so we can get to work preparing to educate 300 of Camden’s kids in 2014,” said Ryan Hill, TEAM’s long-time leader and a chief architect of the educational component of the Camden plan.

But community activists against the proposal from the start said their battle was not over, saying there were a number of areas open for potential challenge.

Moneke Ragsdale, a Camden parent-activist, said the meeting itself was curious, with no agenda released and the meeting going into closed session away from the public before several board members came back and appeared to switch their votes.

“It was a mess,” she said. “Nobody got a direct answer. It looks like they came to do what they wanted to do.”

“We’re going to put our heads together to see what we do next,” she said.

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