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

Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Selling Out of Camden's Schools, Part II

Here's Part I of this series.

This Monday, Governor Chris Christie and Education Commissioner Chris Cerf announced that they were going to disenfranchise the Camden Board of Education and take direct control of the city's schools. One of the most interesting aspects of the story was how little outcry there was from the region's Democratic politicians against a Republican governor taking over Camden's education system.

Here, for example, is Camden Mayor Dana Redd, a prominent member of the South Jersey Democratic machine, standing behind Christie - and next to Cerf - as he makes the announcement:

What's astonishing here is that Mayor Redd was elected on a promise to return local control to the City of Camden - a promise backed up by State Senate President Steve Sweeney. Here's a story from right after her election (all emphases in this post mine):
Redd said she will meet in the coming days with Gov.-elect Chris Christie, who has said Camden should be free to manage its own affairs before 2012. She declined to give a timetable but said her goal is to "transition local authority back to the office of the mayor" when the city can "effectively deliver services."

"Camden needs to be able to lead, but it's going to take time to achieve that moment," Redd said, adding that even under state rule she can make change.

"I don't see the office as being symbolic," she said. "People respect the mayor's office, and I'm looking to raise Camden's profile, and also gain respect back for the city of Camden."

Senate Majority Leader Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), who will become Senate president next week, said he would "get legislation done to enable the mayor to be the mayor."
Keep in mind that, until last week, the mayor appointed all of the members of the Camden Board of Education. You would think she and Sweeney would be furious that Christie broke his word to them and is now taking over the schools. Why don't they seem to care?

Perhaps it has to do with the fact that the Camden BOE, in spite of its ties to Redd, has made life difficult for the charter schools that are sweeping into the city. Back in October of 2012, the BOE voted to stop a bid to bring a "Renaissance School" - a quasi-charter requiring local approval - run by the national charter management chain, KIPP, into Camden. This did not sit well with the South Jersey Democratic boss, George Norcross, who applied pressure on the board and got them to reverse their vote.

Norcross got his school... but what mischief could the board create in the future that would impede the plans to charterize Camden? The KIPP school was the only "Renaissance School" they allowed; how would other charter networks be allowed to expand into Camden if the board was always there to muck things up?

And so the South Jersey Democratic machine cheered on as Christie stripped the local board of its powers. Senator Sweeney seems plenty happy:
The reaction from outside the district yesterday was surprisingly quiet. State Senate President Steve Sweeney praised the move as long overdue, but he was one of the few legislators to even issue statements, pro or con.
Now, one of the received, unquestioned truths of New Jersey politics is that public employee unions - especially the NJEA, the largest teachers union - pretty much control the Democrats. The notion of the big, bad teachers working politicians like puppets is the the bread-and-butter of political pundits throughout the state.

What these pundits haven't bothered to consider, however, is that education privatizers are increasingly involved in funding Democratic politics. For example, Newark Mayor and presumed Senate candidate Cory Booker's biggest backer is Andrew Tisch, member of the board of K-12, Inc, the "virtual charter" company. Wealthy Californians with ties to Rocketship Education poured tons of money into the Perth Amboy school board race.

So education privatizers are becoming players in the race to collect campaign funds - which brings us back to Vahan Gureghian.

In Part I of this series I spelled out how Gureghian, the charter school magnate, has spread campaign money around Pennsylvania, becoming Governor Tom Corbett's biggest contributor. Undoubtedly aided by this influence, Gureghian has become a very wealthy man on the backs of the taxpayers. But Gureghian hasn't confined his political contributions to Pennsylvania.

According to New Jersey election records, Gureghian has been donating money to New Jersey politicians around the state since at least 1997. Gureghian often gives to conservatives: he gave money in the last national election cycle to Republican NJ Congressman Jon Runyan, and to Republican State Senator Joe Kyrillos for his U.S. Senate run.

But in the last state election cycle, Gureghian's money flowed to the Democratic machine in the southern part of New Jersey: $5,000 went to Camden County Democratic freeholders Louis Cappelli  (the Freeholder Director) and Scot McCray (they had to navigate through a particularly nasty campaign, so I'm sure the money was greatly appreciated).

Gureghian gave another $5,000 to the Gloucester County Democrats, the base of State Senate President Steve Sweeney. Sweeney is well-known for his career as a leader in the ironworkers union (even though his pen-ben bill alienated him from public workers). He's raked in untold sums from the ironworkers, electrical workers, carpenters, and other building trade unions over the years. I'm sure his contributors are very pleased to see a band-new, $12 million charter school going up in Camden this year. 

I'm sure Senator Sweeney was also pleased to see the charter's general contractor, TN Ward, gave generously to State Senator James Beach, the former Camden County Clerk and current member of the Education Committee. 

For Gureghian, this is tip money: he gave over $300,000 to Corbett, so these contributions are chump change. But I suspect the South Jersey Democrats know this; keep a close eye on Gureghian's contributions in the next election cycle.

Meanwhile, his new school stands poised to drain money away from Camden's public schools:
The influx of charter schools into Camden is continuing to drain more money each year from the city's burdened Board of Education.
One of the biggest cost centers this year is the allocation of money to charter schools. Close to $66 million is expected to be transferred to district charters in 2013-14, compared with the $52 million transferred this academic year. Nine charter schools operate in the city, with five more preliminarily approved to open in the fall.
On Thursday, the Camden Community Charter School held a groundbreaking ceremony at its Eighth and Linden Streets site in North Camden, east of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge. The school plans to open in September with about 300 students in kindergarten through grade five. The new school will provide free computers and free in-home Internet to its students, officials said.
The Camden Community Charter School is modeled on Pennsylvania's largest charter, Chester Community Charter School. The Camden school will be managed by CSMI Education Management, the company that manages the Chester school.
Remember: CSMI, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, takes more than one-third of the operating budget for its school in Chester, PA. Will their fees be this high here in New Jersey?

And who will own the school property?
Pennsylvania charter school magnate, lawyer, and entrepreneur Vahan Gureghian is bringing his charter school vision to Camden.
The Camden City Zoning Board of Adjustment granted a use variance to Gureghian and his partners Monday night to build a school in North Camden.
The school would be built near the Northgate I and II high-rises and the Ben Franklin Bridge, between Linden and Pearl Streets and Eighth and Ninth Streets. Zoned residential under the Gateway North Redevelopment Plan developed in 2005, the site has been vacant for several years.  
Gureghian owns the Chester Community Charter School, on which he reportedly intends to model the future Camden Community Charter School.
In emphasizing the school's potential positive impacts, Der Hagopian noted that the land would be privately owned and thus subject to taxation. Camden Community would be a public charter school open to all Camden City students.
Again, here's how Gureghian worked out his property deal in Chester:
The management fees are not all that Gureghian has received for his work at Chester Community. In 2010, he was paid $50.7 million for the purchase of the charter school's buildings by Friends of Chester Community Charter School, a nonprofit group formed to purchase the property and support the charter.
Gureghian had originally paid for the buildings' construction; a spokesman said the cost to build them was about $50 million.
Gureghian also received more than $20 million in rent for the charter-school buildings, before he sold them.
The 2010 purchase of the school buildings was financed by $57.4 million in bonds issued by the Delaware County Industrial Development Authority, an agency that underwrites bond issues for a variety of public financing purposes.
So if we take Gureghian at his word, he got back all of the money he paid to build the school, and pocketed $20 million in rent over the time of his ownership. And the purchase was funded by government bonds; funny, Camden has a history of using bonds to develop charter schools. Golly, do you think it's possible Gureghian knew about this?

A better question: do you think it's possible that he didn't?

And so a charter school rises in Camden, a board of education that could have made life difficult for it is disempowered... and everyone smiles.

There's Vahan Gureghian, helping an adorable 4-year-old girl who will be the school's first student. Her guardian is excited about the new charter:
“We just went up to him and said we’d like to be the first ones to sign up,” said Carmen Gonzalez, Iyanna’s guardian. “It’s great — something like this is exactly what we needed.”
I hope she's right. But if she's wrong...

Who in authority is going to demand accountability and transparency from charter schools like this? Who is going to make sure the big profits to be made in charter management are justified? Who is going to ensure the best interests of New Jersey's taxpayers - and New Jersey's beautiful, deserving children - are served?

Accountability begins at home.

1 comment:

edlharris said...

We have a Democrat in Prince George's County Maryland, County Executive Rushern Baker, who wants to control the school system. He wants to be able to pick the Superintendent and control the budget.
That didn't fly to well, so now he has a senator introduce a bill that allows him to pick the superintendent and select members to the to-be-expanded school board. His member would hold veto power over all decisions. He will allow the School board to maintain control over academics even though poor academics is the justification for the take over.
Real Estate developers are the big source of campaign contributions in PGC.