I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Friday, July 6, 2012

Citizens 1, Charters 0

Regular readers here have been following the story of Regis Academy Charter School, a charter foisted on a high-performing school district that neither wanted nor needed it. When we last left the tale, the charter (scheduled to open its doors this September) was so desperate for students, it was drawing them from an area over 50 miles across.

Then Darcie Cimarusti clued us in that Regis was evicted from its location for failure to secure funds to close on its mortgage. They tried to switch the location without letting the sending districts or the town know about the move.

Well, apparently that was too much, even for the NJDOE (and that's saying something!). Cherry Hill, the sending district, reports the following on their website:
Charter Update…The Superintendent received notification from the Department of Education that the Commissioner has denied final approval for Regis Academy Charter School.  In a joint statement issued on July 6, Dr. Reusche and BOE President Seth Klukoff said:  “The district's objections to this charter application have been well documented and we are glad that the Commissioner has decided not to grant final approval.” They also expressed gratitude to the many community members who supported the district’s efforts to have the preliminary approval overturned. 
In Cherry Hill, as in many suburban school districts, funding for public education comes primarily from local property taxes. Yet, the decision to approve charter school applications rests entirely with the Acting Commissioner of Education.  The NJ Assembly has passed legislation (A1877) that would require local approval before the establishment of new charter schools.  The Senate version of the bill (S2243) is awaiting a hearing in the Senate Education Committee.  We encourage our residents to join us in lobbying the Senate to fix New Jersey’s broken charter school law and bring local control to the charter school approval process.
A small correction: it's ACTING Commissioner Cerf. The announcement has been confirmed by the local press in a story by Melissa DiPento (who has done stellar work on this story):
After a Department of Education readiness walk-though inspection last week, one final step in charter school approval, DOE Assistant Commissioner and Chief Innovation Officer Evo Popoff announced today that Regis Academy Charter School would not be opening its doors this fall. 
The DOE cited Regis in misrepresentations made by the school in the charter application, along with no proof of a suitable facility for its students by the June 29 deadline, among other things. 
All of this was detailed in the July 6 letter sent to Pastor Amir Khan, Cherry Hill Superintendent Maureen Reusche, Voorhees Superintendent Raymond Brosel and other school officials. 
Misrepresentations and a lack of forthrightness by Regis in the application and during the review process up to and including the preparedness review amply support this conclusion,” Popoff writes. 
[emphasis mine]
OK, let's stop right here. The NJDOE is saying there were "misrepresentations and a lack of forthrightness by Regis in the application"? Really?

Then why was the process allowed to go on this far???

The four original sending districts had to set aside money to fund the potential students who might have enrolled at Regis. Cherry Hill had to set aside over $600,000 to fund 50 potential students, and that was after pleading their case to the NJDOE, which originally wanted them to set aside $1.9 million. Voorhees, Lawnside, and Somerdale all had to do the same. That money came out of the local taxpayers' pockets through property taxes, even though it was clear none of these communities wanted nor needed a charter school - especially one with no track record of success and little that was interesting or innovative in its curriculum.

But now the NJDOE is admitting there were misrepresentations made in the application. Well, why didn't they catch those in the original screening process?

I'll tell you why:

There's the founder of Regis Academy, Amir Khan, sitting right behind Chris Christie at one of his propaganda rallies disguised as a "town hall." Khan and his wife are anti-marriage equity crusaders and big supporters of Christie. How big?

Here's Khan behind Christie at another rally earlier that year. Khan, as a member of the influential Black Ministers Council, enjoyed unique access to the governor and the ACTING Commissioner of Education. Reginald Jackson, leader of the BMC, boasted about his ability to shepherd favored applicants through the process.

But ACTING Commissioner Cerf swore to us all that the application process was quite rigorous:
Acting Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf said the four schools approved would help expand the option for New Jersey students, especially those in failing districts. He said the applications denied were all vetted using "disciplined" critieria.
"The very first bar that a charter applicant must clear is that the school has a high likelihood of providing an excellent education," Cerf said. "We are confident that all of the schools we approve will be successful."
For the first time, the state followed guidelines set by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers in deciding which applications to approve and deny, Cerf said. [emphasis mine]
Well, guess what? The NACSA, the NJDOE, and ACTING Commissioner Cerf all dropped the ball - and the citizens and students of Cherry Hill, Voorhees, Somerdale, and Lawnside are now paying the price. And it's not like they didn't know they weren't being diligent:

There's Carly Bolger, NJDOE's chief of charters at the time, telling a reviewer that financials in the charter applications would be done in-house. Hackuva job, Carly.

This incident proves one thing: the charter school application process in New Jersey is a disaster. Regis Academy - by the NJDOE's own admission - had a faulty application; it never should have gone this far.

But I do take great hope from the way this incident has ended. Because the good people of these communities proved that if we are willing to stand up and challenge the unaccountable bureaucrats who are shoving "reform" down our throats, we can stop the wholesale destruction of our public schools.

Yes, it is infuriating that they had to go through this nonsense, but they persevered, and they won a big victory for their communities. I am immensely proud of the efforts of people like Darcie, the Speak Up South Jersey folks, SOSNJ, and the school boards of these communities.

If they can do it, we all can do it. Get organized, talk to the press, be vigilant, and be completely relentless. We can and we will push this nonsense back.

ADDING: The Philadelphia Inquirer also did some great work on this story. They give some more detail about the NJDOE's decision:
The controversial Regis Academy charter school, which its backers hoped would open next month in Cherry Hill, was denied final approval by the state Department of Education on Friday.

In its charter application and the state's recent "preparedness" review, Regis provided inaccurate information about the status of its proposed facilities in two township locations, according to a letter dated Friday from the department to the Rev. Amir Khan, pastor of the Solid Rock Worship Center and the would-be founder of the secular charter. 
"After a thorough review of the documentation related to this matter, the inescapable conclusion is that Regis has made material misrepresentations throughout the process and has not at times acted in good faith in its interactions with the department," state Assistant Education Commissioner Evo Popoff said in his letter to Khan. 
But it was lack of forthrightness by the applicants and uncertainty about whether the school had a definite site that brought the charter denial, according to Popoff's letter.
In its initial application, Regis stated that Solid Rock owned the former Holy Rosary church facility at Burnt Mill and Evesham Roads in Cherry Hill and would lease a portion of it to the charter, according to the state.
But Solid Rock did not own the property, and the Diocese of Camden, which does own it, has sought to evict the church, the letter continued.
That alone should have been enough to deny the application!
In an interview Thursday, Khan said that Solid Rock had halted its fight against its eviction and would move out voluntarily July 17. The diocese filed suit against Solid Rock last year, saying it had not met the terms of a lease-to-buy real estate agreement. 
An education spokesman said Thursday that Regis subsequently informed the department that it planned to locate to the former Living Faith Christian Academy on the Cooper River in Cherry Hill. State officials recently inspected the facility.
Again: why even inspect the facility? You knew they were playing fast and loose with the truth; why allow this to go any further?
As part of its recent preparedness-for-opening review, the state received a lease from the charter-seekers identifying Solid Rock as the landlord of the second location and Regis as the tenant, according to Popoff's letter. 
"Because of the prior misstatement in the Regis application" the department sought verification of ownership, Popoff wrote.
If you were so concerned about the integrity of the application at this point, wouldn't that tell you something? Why allow this to continue?
In an e-mail to the state on Thursday, Calvin Brown - Solid Rock's executive director and vice chair of the Regis board of trustees - wrote that the church was in the process of buying the property.
But, Popoff wrote, the property was still listed for sale on several real estate websites.
Those findings, "when taken along with misstatements in Regis' original application, raise serious concerns regarding Regis' reliability and integrity," he concluded.
I'd say the "reliability and integrity" of the entire charter approval process is in question after this fiasco.


Deb said...

Thank You Duke for your coverage of this from early on up until now. You have helped to motivate, engage, educate and outrage people - which helps us all keep fighting. There are a few residents of Cherry Hill and Voorhees that should be recognized by their entire communities for the tireless hours they gave to this and ultimately they made a huge difference in saving their schools and tax payer money.

You are right that this is 'one for the citizens' and right that the selection process is a disaster - and we should not have to have our lives taken over by fighting the good fight each time one of the these applications comes up. The cronyism of charters is a big problem that is not likely to go away anytime soon.....

Thanks Duke!!

Galton said...

Great coverage of an important concern. Thank you,