At Voorhees town hall, Christie fields charter school complaints

Posted: January 19, 2012

Hours after being questioned on national television - again - about whether he'd like to serve as America's vice president, Gov. Christie found himself at a mall in Voorhees fielding questions about a distinctly parochial issue: a controversial charter school in Cherry Hill.

Christie launched a series of town-hall meetings Wednesday, hoping to sell an income-tax cut and other ideas he addressed in his State of the State speech the day before. Instead, he was met with parents worried that the charter school would siphon money from their local public schools.

The governor, who drew a crowd of hundreds in front of a Macy's store at the Voorhees Town Center, said he would prefer that charter schools operate in struggling, rather than high-performing, school districts, a position he had expressed Tuesday in his speech in Trenton.

When asked why his administration would approve the Regis Academy Charter School, which hopes to serve 450 students in kindergarten through eighth grade from Cherry Hill, Voorhees, Lawnside, and Somerdale, Christie said the law didn't restrict where charter schools could open.

"I am not a king, despite the fact that I would love to be," Christie said after passionate questioning from Alan Ehrlach, a Cherry Hill resident. "I have to operate within the law."

The four districts from which Regis would draw are projected to lose a combined $2.8 million in state aid, which could mean larger class sizes and teacher layoffs, according to the Cherry Hill School District.

"Public funding is being taken away from high-performing school districts; we don't agree with that," Stephanie Jacovini, 40, said in an interview before the governor arrived.

Jacovini's daughter has just started kindergarten. Stephanie Jacovini and her friend, Jeanine Martin, 36, moved from Philadelphia to Voorhees specifically for the school district.

"We live here because we can educate all three of our kids in a high-performing district for a fraction of the price of Center City," said Martin, whose children are ages 4, 7, and 9.

The Cherry Hill School District is fighting the charter school in court: It is challenging Regis' charter approval.

Regis would open at the Solid Rock Worship Center, a nondenominational, predominantly African American church. The Rev. Amir Khan, pastor of Solid Rock, sits on a committee of African American pastors that he said has met frequently with Christie on the issue of charter schools.

But when Ehrlach shouted at Christie about his connections with Khan, Christie said he didn't know who he was talking about.

"Amir Khan?" the governor asked, before shouting Ehrlach down, saying that it was interruptions by questioners like him that didn't "allow for civil discourse in this state," a line that received loud applause.

Christie urged the four people who spoke up about the Regis Academy to call their legislators and ask them to pass a charter school reform bill.

But Julia Sass Rubin, a spokeswoman for Save Our Schools, a group fighting for more transparency and local control in the charter school approval process, said that they were not looking to bar charter schools from areas like Cherry Hill, but that they wanted parents in every district to have a greater say on whether to accept charter schools in their communities.

"Our position has always been that money shouldn't give you more democracy," she said in an interview.

During his opening remarks at the town hall, Christie focused on his plan to cut income taxes 10 percent, which he would phase in over three years.

Among Democratic legislators, the tax cut Christie proposed was easily the most controversial piece of his State of the State address Tuesday. They said the cuts would mostly benefit the rich and wondered where he would find more than $1 billion in the budget to pay for them.

But at the town hall, only one person asked Christie about it.

Attoh Moutchia, 43, a Democratic committeeman from Lindenwold, asked Christie whether the tax cut would take money away from the schools.

Christie said that the Democrats were presenting a false choice, that taxpayers deserve to get their money back.

Earlier, he mocked Democratic critics of his tax cut. "It's like your money is just stuck in their cold, dead hand," he said. "Nobody knows better how to spend your money but you."

He started the day Wednesday on NBC's Today show and then on MSNBC's Morning Joe.

The morning-show hosts preferred to quiz him mostly on his vice presidential aspirations. Christie has endorsed GOP presidential front-runner Mitt Romney and has campaigned hard for him. The crucial South Carolina primary is just days away.

Christie said Romney hasn't asked him to be vice president.

"I have said all along I want to be governor of New Jersey," Christie said on NBC. "If you're a betting guy, bet on me being governor of New Jersey after 2012. I think it is rude and wrong to say you wouldn't do something you haven't been asked to do."

Christie, who plans to go to Irvington on Friday, said that, in the coming months, he would hold town-hall meetings several times a week all over the state to sell his plans.


Contact staff writer Joelle Farrell at jfarrell@phillynews.com, 856-779-3237, or @joellefarrell on Twitter.

Staff writer James Osborne contributed to this article.

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