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Camden Board Rejects Urban Hope Act School Proposals

Vote leaves next move uncertain for fledgling public-private initiative.

Camden’s surprise decision this week to block any new schools under the controversial Urban Hope Act has left local officials -- and maybe even the Christie administration itself -- with a difficult decision about what happens next in a drama that has become as much about politics as education.

The city school board late Tuesday night failed to approve any of four proposals that would add up to six new schools to the beleaguered district.

The proposals were the first test of the Urban Hope Act, enacted last year, which permits private organizations to build and manage public schools – called “renaissance schools” -- in Camden and two other districts, Newark and Trenton.

With Camden the only district to participate so far, three of the proposals were rejected outright by unanimous votes of the nine-member board. But much of the attention centered on the fourth proposal, which fell a single vote short of a majority.

That plan for up to five new schools comes from a partnership led by the Cooper Foundation and its powerful backer, George Norcross III, chairman of Cooper Health System and a noted Democratic political leader in South Jersey.

The schools would be run by the KIPP charter school network, among the nation’s largest charter operators and already a long-time presence in Newark, with five charter schools there.

The Cooper/KIPP plan was the clear frontrunner of the four and got favorable reviews in an evaluation by a subcommittee of the Camden board. The proposal earned more than 70 percent of the maximum score, according to the scoring summary released by the district, while none of the other three topped 50 percent..

But that was not enough for the board to advance the proposal, ending with a 4-4 vote, with one abstention. The board’s support is required before the proposal can be passed on to state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf for final approval.

Opponents expressed concern about the impact of the plan on the district, with five new schools funded by the district but operating independently, much like charter schools.

The KIPP/Cooper plan calls for starting with one elementary school. It would eventually include five schools, including a high school, with a total of 3,000 students.

The first school would be in Lanning Square, next to Cooper University Medical Center, on the site of former district elementary school. That school was demolished and set for replacement by the state’s Schools Development Authority, but the project never proceeded..

A day after the Camden board’s vote, community activists and local and state officials were either unsure or not talking about what might happen next. Some in Camden wondered if the board might reconsider a revised proposal.

“I was shocked,” said Moneke Ragsdale, a leading activist who had raised many of the concerns. “They spent the whole summer on this, making the RFP (request for proposal), reviewing them, and then this happens. Maybe they felt like they were being pressured.”

Ragsdale said it may be an opportunity to jumpstart the district’s own hopes for Lanning Square School, but she also said she wouldn’t be surprised if there was some movement on the board to reconsider the Cooper/KIPP proposal.

“Mr. Norcross doesn’t like the word ‘no,’ ” she said of the political leader.

Norcross wasn’t commenting yesterday, after the president of the Cooper Foundation, Susan Bass Levin, said the day before that they were disappointed but would keep working to get the proposal passed.

Much may depend on the Christie administration. The state has played a significant role in Camden schools for more than a decade, with the pressure only stepping up under this administration.

Under Cerf, the state Department of Education has this fall set up a new satellite Regional Achievement Center in the district to work with as many as two dozen public schools that are among the lowest performing in the state. The state already has a fiscal monitor overseeing the district’s budget and personnel decisions.

In a sternly worded letter to the district this summer, Cerf said a number of recommendations would need to be followed by the district if it was to avoid even stronger intervention, including the possibility of state takeover.

The recommendations included advancement of one of the Urban Hope Act plans, as well as close cooperation with the new regional centers and a national search for a new superintendent, a process that has barely begun.

Cerf would not comment yesterday on the local board’s actions. His spokesman, Barbara Morgan, stuck with a statement issued after the vote.

“This legislation was passed with the intent of providing additional high-quality educational options for these communities, and it is our hope and expectation that the Camden school board will continue to examine the proposals that come before its members through this process and not miss this critical opportunity for students,” he said.

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