Camden-Specific Bill Would Extend Renaissance School Deadline

Singleton's measure would add year to Urban Hope Act, set up early retirement for Camden's hard-pressed teachers

Credit: Amanda Brown
State Sen. Troy Singleton (D-Burlington)
With the clock running out on new school proposals under the Urban Hope Act, a late-session bill has been filed that would extend the controversial law’s application deadline another year — specifically in Camden.

State Assemblyman Troy Singleton (D-Burlington) this week filed the bill in the Assembly that would allow for new proposals for so-called renaissance schools to be filed by January 2016.

The deadline under the existing law is January 2015, but the extensive solicitation and application process had all but ruled out any new proposals at this point.

Singleton last night said he heard there were a “few other applications in the queue” for Camden, and he didn’t want to preclude them from at least applying. He did not identify where those proposals would come from.

“I don’t know the specifics, but I know there is a lot of interest,” he said.

The Urban Hope Act law, enacted in 2011, creates renaissance schools — a hybrid of charters and district schools — and opened the way for three large charter school networks to win at least preliminary approval for up to 15 new schools in Camden over the next several years.

The law encompasses Trenton and Newark as well, but no proposals were ever made to those cities.

The latest bill, sponsored by Singleton and state Sen. James Beach (D-Camden) in the Senate, only includes Camden and would not extend the deadline for Trenton and Newark. Singleton said that given neither of those cities’ school boards had even solicited bids up to now, there was no reason to extend the deadline for them as well.

The original law was always aimed at Camden and was pushed by South Jersey businessman and Democratic powerbroker George Norcross. Norcross’s brother, state Sen. Donald Norcross (D-Camden), was its chief sponsor in the Senate. George Norcross is a prominent backer of the first school to be opened in the shadows of the downtown Cooper University Health complex, where he is chairman of the board.

Fast-tracked for possible vote as earlier as Thursday, the Singleton bill also includes a number of provisions that would address concerns that have arisen over the projects approved under the current law.

For instance, the bill would allow new schools to be housed in existing or temporary facilities for up to three years, a change from the law that required that new schools be built.

In Camden, the one approved project for the KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy was starting its first school in temporary quarters, and two other projects with preliminary approval sought to move into existing district schools for at least a year.

Critics had contended that moving into district schools violated the law’s emphasis on newly constructed facilities.

Under the bill, organizations housed in existing buildings would still need to make major renovations, and would not receive the same level of funding as those in new buildings. Still, they would be exempt from the same facilities regulations required of district schools, except in the case of health, safety and handicapped access.

“We want to make sure the expansion of facilities still happens, and if there are temporary facilities they are temporary,” Singleton said. “But as they get up to speed, we don’t want to see it stifled.”

The bill separately adds a provision that would not effect the charter organizations at all, but the Camden district itself under the new leadership of state-appointed superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard.

The bill would enact an early retirement system for Camden school employees, potentially easing the impact of more than 300 layoffs announced this spring.

Singleton said he was “taken aback” by the number of layoffs in the city. “We thought this would at least soften the blow for some of them, for those who have committed a number of years to the children of Camden,” he said.

The bill was taken up in late-night committee hearings last night, with the Senate budget committee backing the measure along mostly party lines. The Assembly budget committee is also expected to endorse the bill.