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In Local Battles Against Charters, Florence Township Joins the Fray

John Mooney | February 11, 2013

Burlington County school district raises familiar refrain, charters drain too much money from local schools.

In what is becoming an annual ritual in towns across the state, another charter school is running into local resistance.

This latest skirmish, being fought in a small town in Burlington County, once again puts the Christie administration on the defensive about the role -- and cost -- of charter schools in the suburbs.

The Riverbank Charter School of Excellence in Florence Township, which opened in 2009, now serves 142 students from kindergarten through third grade. As part of its charter renewal, it applied to the state to add a fourth and fifth grade.

The state’s decision is to come later this month, but the Florence school board unanimously approved a resolution in January opposing the charter’s application. And the local district -- from which Riverbank draws most of it students -- has talked about taking the matter to court if the Christie administration goes ahead and approves the expansion.

Florence’s argument -- which has been heard in a half-dozen communities from Teaneck to Cherry Hill -- is a familiar two-part refrain. First, a charter school does not belong in a district where the local schools are relatively successful.

Second, the price that a district must pay a charter for local students who attend serves a big blow to school budgets already stretched and strained.

“This is a really significant impact on a small district like ourselves,” said Donna Ambrosius, superintendent of the 1,700-student K-12 district. ““We accept that the school is here, and we have absorbed it in our budget, but with this expansion, it would be devastating to our budget.”

If the expansion is approved, she said, the district will be shelling out $1.2 million in the next school year, the same amount that the district’s latest budget draft is currently over the state’s 2 percent cap. In 2015, Florence will pay over $2 million to the charter in 2015 -- almost 10 percent of the districts $25 million budget, the superintendent said.

“This explains why we don’t have middle school sports, why we have larger class sizes,” Ambrosius said, adding that outsourcing classroom assistants may be next. “When you take $1.2 million right off, we have nothing else.”

An online petition has also been started by a group of Florence parents, the kind of campaign that is becoming increasingly common in New Jersey’s charter wars.

The fury of the opposition was not something that Riverbank principal Beth Kelley said she was prepared for when she first applied to the state back in October to make renovations to the former parochial school it now leases. The renovations would add needed classrooms to accommodate more than 70 new students envisioned in the expansion.

“Never was it Riverbank’s intention to cause such dissension in Florence Township, and it is disheartening that certain members of the community have such a rebuttal,” said Kelley, a former teacher at PACE Charter School in Hamilton who also helped found the school.

“I know even some of our students are starting to be affected by this and talking about it,” she said.

Kelley said she recognized the financial pressure on the district, but claimed some of the criticisms of her school are misleading, if not inaccurate.

A primary point of contention concerns the accomplishments of Riverbank itself, where 100 percent of its third graders passed the state’s achievement tests last year. The district maintains that the charter has fewer special-needs and at-risk students than the comparable Florence enrollment. Kelley said that’s not so, and its skewed by the small number of her students overall.

“When you look at the demographics of Florence, we’re not far off,” she said.

But Kelley kept coming back to the argument that suburban communities have every right to have alternatives as do any other. “Not every school is a perfect fit for every student,” she said. “This is an alternative, a free public choice for parents.”

In the Spotlight

Whatever the local dynamics, the dispute has caught the attention of many of the biggest players in the New Jersey’s charter school debate.

The grassroots advocacy group Save Our Schools New Jersey has become a formidable force in the debate statewide, galvanizing local groups in campaigns that helped beat back charters in the past two years in places like Highland Park, Princeton, and Cherry Hill.

Speak Up NJ is another advocacy group that has more recently grown out of the charter fight, and is helping lead the Florence petition drive. One organizer in both groups said the Riverbank case is a little different from the past ones.

"This is the first opposition of a charter expansion four years into operation,” said Darcie Cimarusti, a founder of Speak Up NJ and organizer with SOS NJ. “When the charter has had life breathed into it, the emotions run much deeper on both sides. "

“Parents in the district are scared of losing more of the already scarce resources left in the district, and parents in the charter are scared they won’t be able to expand the school they have come to love and want their children to stay in,” said Cimarusti.

“The battle isn’t over a hypothetical -- there are real kids on both sides of this equation," she added.

The administration was forced to answer some questions on the dispute last week, when state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf testified before the Senate education committee and was asked by state Sen. Diane Allen (R-Burlington), who represents Florence, as to where the state draws the line for placing charter schools.

Not speaking specifically to the Florence application, Cerf said it was about addressing an unmet need in a community, be it large or small, and he’d be more inclined to approve a charter that helped provide for kids who were not being served in the local district.

That has become the mantra for Cerf, as well as Gov. Chris Christie, as the issue has gained attention statewide.

“I am much more sympathetic to a charter application, if there are kids who are not being educated, and the charter applicant makes a credible case that it has a solution that will fill that need,” Cerf said.

He also said that finances do matter. “When you have a charter school in a smaller community, it has a larger impact,” Cerf commented.

Still, where state will draw that line in Florence will be intriguing, especially given the host of factors at play.

The state has already pulled back since Christie’s first year in office from approving new charter schools in suburban communities, and even new charters anywhere. Talk continues in the Legislature over a rewrite of the state’s 15-year-old charter school law, adding more say for local districts and more accountability for charters.

The next round of approvals is expected to be announced this month, providing further indication of how -- and how much -- charter schools will play in this election year, when both Christie and the entire Legislature are up for vote.

The renewal decisions for a handful of schools will come at the very end of the month, with Florence likely to be the most-watched decision. State evaluators have visited the school, Kelley said, poring over books and test scores and scrutinizing classrooms.

Kelley said the topic of local opposition did come up in that visit, but she remains hopeful.

“It’s certainly seems this is becoming standard for the choice movement in higher-performing districts and an issue they have to contend with,” said Kelley.

“There are not many of us, but we’re all facing the same battle,” she said.

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