On top of the 12 charter schools in the pipeline to open in the next 15 months, the Camden school board could approve up to four other alternative schools. Those so-called Renaissance Schools could open by September 2013.
The likely influx of the nontaxable properties has city and school officials scrambling to figure out how the newcomers will harmoniously coexist in the nine-square-mile city that so often struggles to pay for its basic municipal services.
Camden officials are looking into establishing service fees, though they don’t have legal means to actually mandate fees, city finance director Glynn Jones said.
"I can ask nicely and they can say ‘no’ nicely," Jones said. "It’s up to the Legislature to help me out."
Currently none of the six established charter schools in Camden pays any sort of fee to the city. They are part of the 52 percent of city properties that are already tax-exempt.
Requests for proposals recently went out to attract Renaissance Schools, which, under the state’s Urban Hope Act, allows nonprofit entities to construct a school, or lease privately owned land, and operate a school with 95 percent of costs coming from the district’s per-pupil tax dollars. Charter schools receive up to 90 percent of per-pupil expenses.
Renaissance Schools may also hire private companies, without any public bidding, for a range of services, including staffing, management, and bookkeeping. A meeting Thursday to discuss the Renaissance School process attracted more than a dozen prospective operators, including various charter school applicants.
"It’s a viable option," said Jake DerHagopian, founder of Camden Community Charter School. When asked if he was considering using a site at Eighth and Linden Streets, where his charter is set to be built, as a Renaissance School, or if he is looking to build a second school, he simply said "It’s all part of the consideration."
The Camden Community Charter School was one of the three schools that had to request a "planning year," because its school site is not yet ready. An amendment to North Camden Redevelopment Plan must be made to allow for a school zone in the area just southwest of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge.
Zoning changes are only one of the several speed bumps that charter schools can expect to encounter when looking for space. Environmental cleanups could also hinder the process, said Ed Williams, city director of planning and development.
"Assume there is something under the ground," Williams said, adding that it would be worthwhile for prospective buyers to conduct an independent environmental check on any properties they are interested in.
Two charter schools identified 1667 Davis St., a former chemical laboratory, in their charter applications to the state as their intended sites. But Excellence Charter School founder Scott Gordon said his team quickly realized the site would require extensive environmental cleanup before being transformed into a school. He is still looking for a location for a K-5 charter.
Gordon, who runs the Mastery Charter School network in Philadelphia and has received praise from President Obama and Oprah Winfrey, was also due to open a new campus in Camden this year. "Unfortunately, the challenges securing an appropriate facility in Camden preclude a fall 2012 opening," Gordon stated in his letter to the state requesting an extension to open in September 2013.
The extensions are still subject to the state education commissioner’s final review, which grants the actual charters in July each year for September openings. Still in the running to get a charter granted for a September opening in Camden are City Invincible Charter School, Charter School for Global Leadership, Knowledge A to Z Charter School, and New Jersey Virtual Charter.
Only two of those have signed leases. Knowledge A to Z Charter School will be housed in the Parkside Boys and Girls Club. The entire second floor was retrofitted to make room for several classrooms. The long-term plan is to fill the pool and build more classrooms, according to the charter school’s application.
After striking out with several city properties, City Invincible Charter School was fortunate when it "made a blind inquiry to the [Camden] Diocese," founder Julie Stapleton-Carroll said.
City Invincible signed a lease with Cathedral Parish in Camden a couple of weeks ago to use the space formerly occupied by the San Miguel School, which closed at the end of the 2010-11 school year. The charter school plans to also lease the rectory next to the school and retrofit it to eventually add more classrooms.
New Jersey Virtual Charter had been in discussions with New Bethel Methodist Church, which currently houses the Community Education Resource Network (CERN), an alternative school program for high school dropouts. But the Rev. Tim Merrill said those negotiations fell through when the charter school said it would not be hiring anyone from the CERN staff or forming an official partnership with Merrill or Angel Cordero, a city activist who runs CERN.
Attempts to reach Virtual Charter founder Timothy Nogueira were unsuccessful.
Some charter schools have found ideally sized properties but have had to let them go after the buildings were vandalized or assessors estimated that fixing the properties would cost millions.
Ruiz’s Hope Community Charter School had to request a year of planning after vandals stripped its intended building at 129 Market St. of copper.
Ruiz, who is a teacher in Sicklerville and the sister of former state Assemblyman Robert Smith, is working with a local broker in search of other potential properties and reached out to Democratic power broker and Cooper University Hospital chairman George E. Norcross III for help.
"I was asked to help them facilitate some building opportunities to house their charter school," said Norcross, who is part of the local ownership group of The Philadelphia Inquirer. They had "concerns I was familiar with."
Norcross himself is looking for land to build Renaissance Schools. In a recent interview, he said his family’s nonprofit foundation and the Cooper Foundation, the charitable arm of Cooper Hospital, will be involved in the new wave of alternative schools for Camden children.
"Our big initiative will be with Renaissance Schools," he said.
Despite the financial effects the invasion of charters might have on the city, Mayor Dana L. Redd still supports them, spokesman Robert Corrales said.
"We want to ensure that everyone is treated fairly and equally," Corrales said. "At the end of the day, it’s about the children of Camden. The mayor wants to ensure that Camden students receive the best education possible so they can succeed."
Contact Claudia Vargas at 856-779-3917, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @InqCVargas. Read her blog, "Camden Flow," on philly.com.