Phila. firm gets jump-start on Lanning Square school project in Camden

Posted: June 23, 2012

Six weeks after Gov. Christie came to Camden to sign the Urban Hope Act - opening the doors for nonprofits to build and run mostly publicly funded schools in the state's poorest and lowest-performing districts - one Philadelphia development company had already started to dig for documents.

KMS Development Partners - a construction consultant working with the Cooper Foundation, the charitable arm of Cooper University Hospital - filed an Open Public Records request to the state Schools Development Authority on Feb. 27 asking for drawings and specifications for the "proposed Lanning Square School," whose construction the state pushed off its priority list after Christie came into office in 2010.

Those plans, for what was to have been a traditional public school, were drawn up by NK Architects with taxpayer money.

The state granted the request March 6, giving KMS a two-month head start over development and consulting firms that remained uninformed of the specifications until mid-May, when the Camden Board of Education issued its Request for Proposals (RFP) for up to four so-called renaissance schools as defined by the Urban Hope Act.

"We knew the city would issue an RFP," said Cooper Foundation president Susan Bass Levin. The request for the design of the public school once planned for Lanning Square was "so we could be ready."

The foundation has taken a special interest in having a renaissance school built in Lanning Square, the neighborhood of Cooper hospital.

The deadline to submit proposals was to be Monday. But this week, the Camden district approved a 30-day extension to accommodate interested parties struggling to finalize their plans for renaissance schools.

"Now that they extended [the deadline] for a month, we are still considering it," said Julie Stapleton Carroll, executive director of school services at Foundations Inc., a nonprofit school-management organization. Stapleton Carroll is the founder of City Invincible Charter School, slated to open in the fall in Camden.

Under the Urban Hope Act - sponsored by Sen. Donald Norcross (D., Camden), brother of Cooper hospital chairman George E. Norcross 3d - nonprofit entities can construct a renaissance institution, or lease a privately owned building, and operate a school with 95 percent of the costs coming from the district's per-pupil tax dollars. George Norcross is a managing partner in the company that owns The Inquirer.

Renaissance schools may hire private companies without public bidding for a range of services, including staffing, management, and bookkeeping.

The Cooper Foundation and Foundations Inc., like several other groups involved in the process, have focused on the site that was to have housed a Lanning Square School, next to Cooper hospital's new medical school on Haddon Avenue.

But it seems that only Cooper and KMS knew they could request the plans for the delayed school.

"I wasn't aware there were plans," Stapleton Carroll said. "We aren't as far along."

KMS was hired by the Cooper Foundation to look at how much it would cost to build a renaissance school at Lanning Square and is helping to assemble a proposal to be sent to the school board.

Bass Levin is working to find a nonprofit educational-management partner, as required by the Urban Hope Act, to submit the proposal and manage the school. She declined to name the companies the Cooper Foundation is considering.

A new school has long been promised to the neighborhood. The old Lanning Square Elementary School was found to be structurally deficient in 2002 and was razed. Despite investing more than $10 million of taxpayer money in the project, Christie pushed it far down on the priority list for school construction.

The Schools Development Authority had already spent $1.8 million on a design for the school. Though it still is licensed to use the plans, authority spokeswoman Edythe Maier said, the copyright is retained by NK, of Morristown, N.J.

NK principal Stephen P. Aluotto declined to comment on the state's release of his firm's plans to KMS. According to district records, NK also has asked for information about submitting a Camden renaissance-school proposal.

After KMS received the NK plans, it distributed them to the Cooper Foundation and construction contractors, Bass Levin said.

David Millman, a KMS consultant who requested the plans, declined to comment on his firm's involvement in a renaissance-school proposal. KMS is a successor company to Keating Development Corp., which built the Octavius V. Catto Community School.

P. Agnes, another Philadelphia-based firm and lead developer of the Cooper Cancer Institute now under construction in Camden, also gained access to the NK plans and bid package. Bass Levin said it was possible KMS shared them with Agnes.

A message on the Agnes list-serve asked for bid proposals for the construction of a "Lanning Square Family School." The material Agnes has made available to subcontractors, according to sources, is almost the same as the bid package NK assembled.

"This raises a number of questions as to how the [Schools Development Authority] is going to handle taxpayer-funded assets," said David Sciarra of the Educational Law Center, which has been critical of the state's decision to stop building of the Lanning Square as a public school.

"Taxpayers paid a million dollars for the design of Lanning Square School as a public school, not a renaissance school," Sciarra said.

Neighborhood activists say the residents simply want a school in their community. Lanning Square's children are split between two schools, one of them a mile away.

"Every day at the bus stop, parents say, 'When is the new school going to be built?' and 'I can't take this anymore,' " said Sheila Davis, president of the Lanning Square West Residents in Action.

MoNeke Ragsdale, whose son just finished seventh grade at Lanning Square at Fetters - one of the temporary schools for neighborhood students - is part of a group that has protested outside Cooper hospital on a near-weekly basis for a couple of months. They don't want Cooper to be involved in "our traditional public school," Ragsdale said.

By law, the Cooper Foundation cannot propose a renaissance school or be the management company. The legislation states that a nonprofit entity with urban-education experience has to be the lead in the project.

Bass Levin said she expected that the Cooper Foundation would have seats on the board of the new school, if they are part of its creation. For now, the foundation is the driving force behind the RFP for a renaissance school at the Lanning Square site.

The Schools Development Authority and state Education Department "are working with the district to determine the most appropriate way to address the facility needs that exist in Camden," said Maier, of the Schools Development Authority.

The Camden school board is expected to decide Aug. 28 who will be awarded contracts to build renaissance schools in the city. The schools are expected to open in fall 2013.


Contact Claudia Vargas at 856-779-3917 or cvargas@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @InqCVargas.

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