NJ teachers union challenges legality of Camden charter takeover

Complaint alleges plans to convert five schools are attempt to circumvent state’s Urban Hope Act.

As expected, the state-operated Camden school district’s controversial plan to transfer five of its schools to charter school operators is now facing a formal legal challenge.

A little less expected: The New Jersey Education Association is filing the complaint.

The NJEA yesterday announced it is formally challenging the plans announced last month to turn five Camden public schools into “renaissance schools,” a hybrid charter school model operated by large charter organizations.

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The teachers union specifically challenged the district’s method for accomplishing the switch — technically closing four of the schools outright and then either selling or leasing their operation to the charter organizations.

“The school district is attempting to circumvent the terms and spirit of the Urban Hope Act to allow the corporate takeover of Camden Public Schools,” NJEA President Wendell Steinhauer said in a statement announcing the legal challenge.

“The district is merely waiting until the end of the school year to do superficial renovations, at which time it will simply call these schools Renaissance Schools so they can be turned over to private management companies,” Steinhauer added.

Some kind of legal challenge was hardly unexpected, as the Newark-based Education Law Center sent the first shot across the bow last week when it questioned the legitimacy of the move.

The fact that the formal challenge comes from the NJEA is not entirely surprising, either, given it is its members whose jobs could be at stake in the closings.

However, leaders of the local Camden Education Association had taken part in announcements of the plans for the five schools. And that local teachers union recently approved a new contract that called for an early retirement plan to soften the impact the charter-school conversion will have on jobs.

The NJEA’s complaint specifically targets the school-closing proposal currently before state Education Commissioner David Hespe.

The challenge asserts that the schools, already targeted for interventions under both federal and state law, can’t legally be closed or transferred to charter networks.

The NJEA challenge also notes that the planned closures were announced without any formal public hearings.

Still, how much the legal action will affect the closings is uncertain.

The district is proceeding with its plans for the five schools. And a spokesman for Camden Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard challenged the claim there was no public input, citing several public meetings held before the announcement of the closings, adding that the moves would only benefit city families.

“The NJEA is mischaracterizing the law and diverting attention from the real issue, which is the need to improve our children’s education,” said spokesman Brendan Lowe.

“These improvements are focused on increasing student learning and renovating dilapidated buildings in a city that is sincerely in need of change. Through our continued community engagement, we’ve heard hundreds of students, educators, parents, and community members demand change in our most-struggling schools.”

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