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

Monday, January 30, 2012

Big Questions About Charter Applications in NJ

So I'm still left wondering how exactly Pastor Amir Khan got his charter school approved when the community clearly doesn't want it. To help figure out this mystery, I made a timeline of the events that led up to the approval:

January, 2010: Pastor Amir Khan and his wife, Aughtney Khan, are featured in a video produced by the Star-Ledger that shows the couple demonstrating against same-sex marriage legislation (2:47):

May, 2010: The Attorney General of New Jersey, Paula Dow (a Christie appointee), praises Khan's Nehemiah Group for their program reintegrating ex-offenders back into the community.

September, 2010: Khan signs a lease-purchase agreement with the Diocese of Camden for the former Holy Rosary Church complex in Cherry Hill. He moves Solid Rock Worship Center to the complex and opens a private school.

October, 2010: Khan submits an application for the Regis Academy Charter School in Camden. The application is supported by the Black Ministers Council of New Jersey and its president, Rev. Reginald Jackson.

October, 2010: The Voorhees, Cherry Hill, Lawnside, and Somerdale school districts are notified that am application for a charter school has been submitted to their districts.

January, 2011: Regis Academy is not approved in the round released this month (although Jackson claims all five supported by the BMC were approved, in contradiction to earlier reports).

March, 2011: The BMC holds a workshop during its annual conference for "churches that would like to start charter schools." Attending the conference that day are Gov. Chris Christie and ACTING Commissioner of Education Chris Cerf.

April, 2010: Neighbors of Solid Rock in the Ashland section of Cherry Hill complain about a rash of burglaries connected to a man living at the center.

May, 2011: The Cherry Hill School District and the other three districts are informed that a charter school application has been resubmitted to open in the town. Cherry Hill and Voorhees file responses stating the charter is unnecessary in the high-performing districts.

May 2, 2011: Holy Eucharist Parish files a civil action against Solid Rock Worship Center for failing to make payments toward the $2.9 million lease-own agreement.

UPDATED: Week of May 15, 2011 (approx.): Amir Khan releases a video urging viewers to contact the NJ Assembly Education Committee and express disapproval of a bill that would require local approval of charter schools. Khan states on that coming Sunday he will ask his congregation to turn on their phones during services and contact state legislators.

June, 2011: Holy Eucharist and Solid Rock settle out of court "at the last minute." No indication is given in the report as to why Holy Eucharist settled the lawsuit.

September 14, 2011: Christie visits Joseph D. Sharpe School in Cherry Hill
Sharp Principal Robert Homer said he was contacted Monday by Cherry Hill Superintendent Maureen Reusche about Christie’s visit. 
“Dr. Reusche had spoken with the Camden County Commissioner of Education, who was evidently impressed with how quickly the Cherry Hill district had moved forward with the CCS,” Homer said. 
“Sharp has been at the forefront introducing the new standards, and that’s why we were chosen.”
September 30, 2011: The NJ Department of Education announces that the application for Regis Academy Charter School has been approved. This headline of the press release, however, says:
Christie Administration Expands High Quality Educational Options with Approval of Four Additional New Charter Schools Scheduled to Open in 2012
Note the "Christie Administration" is credited, and not the NJDOE.

October 1, 2011: In an interview with the Star-Ledger, ACTING Commissioner of Education Chris Cerf says:
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.
October, 2011: Khan admits, in an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer's James Osborne:
But the opening of the larger charter school is essential to the church's plan to buy the land from the diocese, he said.
"We were anticipating the charter school to get additional income to carry us," he said. [emphasis mine]
November, 2011: Khan confesses to Osborne:
"I could sell a bikini to an Eskimo," Khan once boasted.
January 19, 2012: At a town hall in Voorhees, Gov. Christie denies knowing Amir Khan:
Easy - pretend he doesn't know who is running the charters:

About an hour into a session that had been cordial and laced with applause, Cherry Hill resident Alan Erlich interrupted Christie as the governor was answering a question about the school, Regis Academy. Emotions quickly escalated. 
“I don’t have a solution for every problem,” Christie said to Erlich immediately after the interruption. “You had an opportunity to speak before. Here’s the bottom line: I don’t have a solution for everything.” 
But after Erlich charged the charter school’s approval was a favor for a Christie supporter, the governor denied the claim. 
“Who are you talking about?” asked Christie, who went on to say he does not know Amir Khan, a pastor who is organizing the school at a church complex in the Ashland area. “I haven’t given one friend a charter school.” [emphasis mine]
There was only one problem with Christie's statement that he doesn't know Khan: Khan was sitting right behind him!

After reviewing the events, I'm left with these questions:

- Why didn't anyone from the NJ DOE or the National Association of Charter School Authorizers think it was a conflict of interest for Regis Academy, whose "Lead Founder" is Amir Khan, to pay nearly half a million dollars in rent a year to Solid Rock Worship Center, whose pastor is Amir Khan? Isn't there potential for serious problems in the future arising from this conflict?

- Why was Khan's application rejected in the first round but accepted in the second? What changed? Did he attend the BMC's 2011 conference? Did he meet with Gov.Christie or his staff at the event?

- Is it acceptable to the Christie Administration that towns are forced to give money to charter schools when their lead founders admit their other endeavors are dependent on getting rent from that same charter? When Khan admitted his plan was to close his private school once the charter opened?

- Why did the Catholic diocese suddenly settle out of court in June of 2011 with Solid Rock? Why didn't they just seize the property? What changed?

- Did Khan meet with Christie or his staff in May of 2011 at the Cherry Hill town hall?

- Khan made videos asking his parishioners to contact legislators to defeat a bill that would give towns control over charter approvals; I'm not sure when he published them, because they were removed soon after this story broke. When was he calling for this legislation to be defeated? During the application process?

Who will demand the answers to these questions? And how many other charters that we don't know about have similar questions swirling around them?


Deb said...

With over 4500 signatures on a petition to give local communities the right to decide whether a charter school is appropriate for their own community, there are a lot of us out there who will keep asking these questions. And thank you Duke for keeping them front and center. It did not take community members long to begin to find out all the problems associated with Regis and yet the DoE did not look, or did not want to look. Shame on them. And more shame on them if they cannot admit this egregious mistake now.

Unknown said...

Interesting how the governor is all for "letting the voters decide" when it comes to marriage equality.

But those same voters cannot be trusted to decide whether a charter school is appropriate for their own community.