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Charter School Leases Struck Down in Newark, For Now

Superintendent could overrule advisory board’s opposition to shared space.

The Newark public schools uneasy relationship with the city’s charter schools stirred more debate last night, as the district’s advisory board rejected leases to share space with the alternative schools. Newark Superintendent Cami Anderson, however, appeared poised to overrule and let the leases proceed.

The proposed leases of five district buildings to charter school operators for next year has been the latest source of friction in a long run of contentious community meetings surrounding the state-run schools.

Unable to make a decision last week, the district advisory board met in a special meeting last night to further consider them. The state has a deadline for issuing its final charters for next fall by July 15.

After lengthy public comment, the board formally and overwhelmingly voted against four of the five proposed leases.

Still, almost as soon as it was taken, many expected that Anderson, appointed by Gov. Chris Christie last year, would promptly overrule at least some of the votes.

Anderson quickly left the meeting without comment, but spokeswoman Renee Harper said a decision could come as soon as today. Harper would not make a prediction but said the veto was a clear option.

“She maintains that right and will act in the best interest of the district and of all the children,” Harper said in an interview. “We’ll see what happens.”

The meeting at the Belmont Runyon Elementary School continued the run of raucous community meetings that have grown commonplace in the city over charter schools and the state’s ongoing control of the district overall. The state seized operation of district in 1994, appointing its superintendent ever since.

It is Anderson as the latest superintendent who has made the sharing of district space with charter schools one of the centerpieces of her sweeping reorganization of the district.

She and her staff have said that dropping enrollment in low-performing district schools has forced the co-locations. District officials said there are as many as 8,100 excess seats now in the district.

Without those leases, “those seats would remain empty and unoccupied, as we would not have the children to fill them,” said Valerie Wilson, the district’s business administrator.

Under Anderson’s proposal, five charter schools would enter into long-term or short-term deals for district space, either sharing the space or taking up the entire building.

District officials yesterday said the leases would earn the district approximately $500,000-700,000 a year in additional rent, significantly less than the nearly $2 million that was first reported.

But a keystone of the deals would be the charters maintaining and renovating the buildings, potentially saving the district millions of dollars. TEAM Academy charter schools would enter a long-term lease for one building, the closed Eighteenth Avenue School, and spend the next year renovating the building with financing through a federally funded bond program.

But the details of that arrangement took up considerable discussion last night, with some questioning why the district can’t take out the same grants to make the renovations and keep the school serving district students.

Others brought up what is becoming a recurring theme of the community meetings, that the state is selling out the public schools to for-private interests, even if the charter schools are virtually all non-profit entities.

“We know who the enemy is, and we must fight to our last breath to save our children and to save Newark public schools,” said Mildred Crump, a city councilwoman who was the first in the audience to speak at the meeting.

“For those of you willing to sell our children for profit, shame on you,” she said.

Added Junius Williams, a longtime civic activist in Newark: “This is a real estate scheme to put public property in private hands.”

Board members did not offer up much comment before voting. The only one to speak at length, member Shavar Jeffries called the deals a “win-win” for the district in providing additional income for the district and additional choices for the city’s schoolchildren.

“These charter schools are public schools,” Jeffries said. “We have heard a lot of rhetoric that is frankly ridiculous … But these are public schools regulated by the state of New Jersey, and they are educating Newark children.”

Editor's note: The initial version of this story incorrectly said that the work on Eighteenth Avenue School would be funded through a state grant. The work would be financed through a federally financed bond program, administered through the state.

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