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After Last-Minute Changes, Lawmakers Poised to Vote on Urban Hope Act

Bill would allow for private building of public 'renaissance schools' in the state's poorest cities.

With one voting day to go before the end of the session, New Jersey legislators scrambled yesterday to finish up a controversial bill that could spur some private construction of new public schools in three low-performing districts.

The initial Urban Hope Act called for Newark, Camden, and Jersey City to participate in the pilot program that would allow nonprofit organizations to apply to the district and the state to build new so-called "renaissance schools." Each district could get up to four new schools.

But by afternoon, a tweak of the language took Jersey City out and put Trenton in. And by the end of the day, even Newark wasn't a lock, since its state senator was calling for it to be removed from the bill altogether.

Still, that appears unlikely to happen, and the budget committees of both the Senate and the Assembly reported out the bill with strong and bipartisan support. The full Senate and Assembly are to vote on the measure on Monday, their last day of the session, and Gov. Chris Christie is expected to sign it.

The bill has come a long way from Christie's original proposal, announced last summer outside a century-old Camden elementary school. At the time, the governor proposed a measure to allow the conversion of the lowest-performing schools in a handful of districts to private school management companies.

But sponsored by state Sen. Donald Norcross (D-Camden) and Assemblyman Angel Fuentes (D-Camden), the bill evolved through discussions over the past several months to be less about private management and more about building new schools, albeit by private organizations.

Yesterday, Norcross and others testified the measure was almost solely to jumpstart long-stalled projects in cities like Camden and Newark, where the state's court-ordered school construction program under the Schools Development Authority had virtually ground to a halt under Christie and only now has started to launch new projects. Under the bill, the new projects could be in SDA land sold or conveyed to the organizations.

"We all know and agree there is an immediate and incredible need for new schools," Norcross testified yesterday the Assembly's committee, before going downstairs in the Statehouse annex to repeat the testimony to the Senate panel.

Added Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), chairman of the Senate committee: "If the SDA was building schools, we wouldn't need this bill, but they've essentially shut their doors."

But working out the details provided the day's drama, as significant amendments were negotiated to address an array of concerns, causing the hearings to take unexpected breaks as legislative staff wrote them up.

One was the addition of Trenton and subtraction of Jersey City, after some legislators said the Jersey City delegation had no interest. Newark has similar questions, although it looks like it will remain.

State Sen. Ronald Rice (D Essex) said he strongly opposes the measure as a potential opening to for-profit companies running public schools.

The law allows the nonprofits to engage for-profit companies to build the schools and to ultimately manage them, except in the area of instruction. Few made much distinction, however, and Rice and other critics said it could open up wholesale for-profit management of these schools.

Rice was equally critical of the SDA, but he said expediting new projects should not come at the expense of disenfranchising Newark residents. Another provision of the bill would require the local school board to approve the projects, but in the case of the state-operated Newark, there is only an advisory board.

"This bill stinks, and we want Newark out of the bill," Rice said several times.

Other concerns came from Democrats and Republicans alike. Another provision of the initial bill called for school districts to bond for the construction funds, raising a concern that local taxpayers could be left paying the bill. The bill was amended to remove any public funds and leave it entirely to private money.

"The nonprofit would be solely responsible for the cost," Norcross said.

A lingering concern remained that the schools would not be required to follow public bidding laws, raising worries on both sides to potential abuse and corruption. Still, while some legislators said afterward that they hoped for some floor amendments on Monday, they expected it to pass.

"While I hear your concerns -- some of them extraordinarily valid -- I don't see how we can get in the way of building critically needed schools for our cities," said state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex).

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