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Newark Charters Still Looking for a Home

More than a year after Newark district schools were roiled by the prospect of sharing space with charter schools, the debate has sparked new community outcry over more outside leases -- and the option of selling three of the public schools to charters outright.

Newark superintendent Cami Anderson wasn’t around for the first fight last year. But at the very end, when newly hired, she helped calm some of the tensions with a scaled-back plan.

This time, though, it is her plan and on her watch, and it could prove a critical test for the superintendent seeking an ambitious reorganization for the district while facing what is emerging as a tough budget crunch.

The topic got a breather last night at the Newark advisory board meeting, when what was expected to be a raucous debate was cooled with the board’s sudden decision to table the discussion.

Seven leases were on the agenda as board resolutions. Each was pulled at the last minute when the votes appeared to fall short of the needed majority.

“We’d like to table them until we are able to have a community dialogue on these items and board members are able to review the leases,” said board member Marques-Aquil Lewis, who made the motion for the postponement.

How long they will be postponed is unclear, with Anderson’s staff saying they likely need to be settled by the end of this month if the charter schools are to get their final approval from the state to open next year.

Lewis indicated he was in no rush, although board president Antoinette Baskerville-Richardson said she would like to get them addressed by June 30. “We will move with all due deliberation to have this resolved as soon as possible,” she said.

What’s at stake depends on the perspective. The leases are a mixed lot. Four of them would involve sharing space in three schools that are seeing dwindling enrollment. They are Burnet Street School, Madison School, and Louise A Spencer School. Such so-called co-location arrangements have been in place this year in six district schools, garnering about $500,000 for the district.

Triggering much of the outcry this time are three deals that call for charter schools to take out long-term leases for three other buildings in their entirety, with options to buy the properties in the near term.

The three schools are Eighteenth Avenue School, Barringer High School’s 9th grade annex, and West Side High School’s annex, all three of which are being closed by Anderson next year as part of her broader consolidation plans.

Administration officials said the leases were critical for the district to address its rising maintenance costs in those buildings, with each of the expected charter operators planning renovations.

Eighteenth Avenue School is one of the district’s oldest, built in the late 1800s, and administration officials said it could cost $15 million to renovate. Those costs instead would be born via economic development bonds planned by the new tenant, TEAM Academy Charter Schools.

Under the terms of the lease, the district would also have the option to retain the building if its enrollment needs changed, officials said. The leases would also require the charter schools to give preference to neighborhood children and those with special needs, they said.

“We are clearly trying to serve the students in the area,” said Photeine Anagnostopoulos, the district’s chief financial officer. “This will benefit everyone.”

She said the district simply cannot afford the renovation bills on all three buildings, with the maintenance costs already topping $50 million. "That’s a pretty steep price to pay, and right now we don’t have access to that type of funding,” Anagnostopoulos said.

At the same meeting, Anagnostopoulos said each of the district’s schools would see six percent cuts in their pupil funding. She said all the leases next year, including the continuing of this year’s co-locations, would bring the district nearly $2 million.

“We will be able to take that cash and put it into buildings where there are 1,000 kids,” Anagnostopoulos said. “That flexibility is important, and something we desperately need.”

“It may not seem like a lot we’re bringing in, but those buildings will get maintained and that’s worth millions,” she said.

Still, there remained questions as to why these schools were singled out and the value of the leases. While officials said they would be leased or sold at market prices, some board members said that needed to be explored further to make sure the district got the best deal it could.

Several officials, as well as audience members last night, said the issue was as much about communication, an issue that arose last year as well and seems to continue to rankle.

“The community feels it is being disrespected, and has not felt they have been engaged as true partners,” said Darrin Sharif, a city councilman for the central Ward, where several of the shared arrangements would be located.

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