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George Norcross Discusses Urban Hope Act, Other Education Reforms

South Jersey powerbroker talks to NJ Spotlight about how Camden's first 'renaissance school' could be under construction in a year's time.

George Norcross' name is inextricably linked to the Urban Hope Act -- the seemingly unstoppable legislation that would permit private organizations to build and manage public schools in New Jersey.

His brother Donald is the bill's chief sponsor in the state Senate. His Camden ties and stated visions for revamping the city's schools are mirrored in the legislation.

Now that the Urban Hope Act looks all but certain for passage in the legislature today, NJ Spotlight caught up with the South Jersey businessman and political leader this weekend and asked him to explain what he has in mind.

"I think the Urban Hope Act will be the most important thing to happen to Camden in the last 20 years," he said during the phone interview.

The law, which was voted out of committee last week, calls for up to four “renaissance schools” to be built in each of three low-performing districts. The schools would typically be run by nonprofits, similar to charter schools but with less red tape.

"If we are able to build four new schools, we're talking more than $100 million in investment and, more importantly, giving an opportunity to Camden children for a new day."

Norcross said his family's foundation and Cooper Health System, of which he is chairman, will likely team up to lead the first school proposal. He stressed that Cooper would not be financing the school but would contribute its brand and specific services, such as health clinics and mentoring.

"We'll be strategic partners," Norcross said. "We are not in the business of operating schools. That is not our expertise."

The school would likely be run by a nonprofit charter management organization hired for the project, he said. Norcross said he is already working separately with charter schools in the city to help them grow as well. Although for-profits are afforded a limited role in the law, Norcross downplayed any place for them in his plans, other than as service providers or construction contractors.

Norcross said he envisioned other nonprofit entities in the city and in the other two proposed pilot districts -- Newark and Trenton -- would step up to do the same.

"A lot of people will be competing for these opportunities," he said. "It could be a Prudential, PSE&G. I think the proposals will be stronger if it has that publicly known brand."

Norcross said ideally his proposal would be built on the Lanning Square site next to Cooper, long eyed for a new school through the state's court-ordered school construction program but stalled now under the Schools Development Authority.

"Lanning Square would bring us the most pride, right in our backyard," he said.

But he stressed that the first decision under the legislation must come from the Camden school board and city leaders, and any proposal would also need to be approved by the state. The bill specifically calls for the SDA to provide possible sites for these projects.

Still, given Norcross' stature as an influential powerbroker in South Jersey, if not statewide, as well as a close ally of top legislative leaders, his words are not simply speculation. He believes construction could start within a year.

"I think you'll see the administration moving quickly on these projects," he said.

In the interview, Norcross also took the opportunity to weigh in on some other school reform proposals pending in the legislature, ones that Gov. Chris Christie said will be among his priorities in 2012.

The big one is the Opportunity Scholarship Act, a corporate tax credit program that would fund vouchers or scholarships for low-income students in low-performing districts to attend private schools. Norcross has been a big champion of the long-debated proposal, and he said yesterday he still strongly supports it, but in a pilot program limited to a few districts. Such a proposal has been in development under the leadership of state Assemblyman Lou Greenwald (D-Camden).

"It needs to return to its original roots," Norcross said. "It needs to be a pilot with a beginning and an end, in four or five districts that are clearly failing districts and with substantial bipartisan support."

He said he tried hard to see it approved last summer, but ultimately could not pull the votes, including from Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex). "That is obviously a challenge," he said. "I did my best to persuade her last summer, and I was not successful."

This year he sees the chances as a little better, but only a little. He said the various versions of the bill that have added and subtracted districts by the month don't help.

"I give it a better than 50-50 chance," he added.

"It's a little tough to put Humpty Dumpty back together again," he added.

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