In a reversal, Camden school board approves KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy Renaissance school

FILE PHOTO: The Cooper Foundation, in partnership with the KIPP charter school network, proposes a school campus for land next to the Cooper Medical School.
FILE PHOTO: The Cooper Foundation, in partnership with the KIPP charter school network, proposes a school campus for land next to the Cooper Medical School. (ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: November 30, 2012

Reversing itself, the Camden school board Wednesday backed the creation of a "Renaissance school" at the site of the former public Lanning Square Family School.

The six-acre plot next to the new Cooper Medical School of Rowan University has sat empty for years since the demolition of the Lanning Square school.

It will become home to the five-school campus of KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy if the plan is approved by state education officials and if the privately run school agrees to a contract with the board.

The approval - which likely ended plans to build a new Lanning Square public school - came after a long and sometimes heated meeting that began Tuesday and ended early Wednesday.

In September, the board rejected all four Renaissance-school applications it had received, three of them on unanimous votes and KIPP by a 4-4 tie.

This time, after a closed-door discussion, the board agreed to transfer the plot to KIPP. The board owns part of the land and the state the rest.

KIPP, the Knowledge is Power Program, is a charter school giant teaming up in Camden with the Norcross Foundation Inc. and the charitable foundation of Cooper University Hospital.

The Norcross foundation was created by the family of State Sen. Donald Norcross (D., Camden) and his brother, George E. Norcross III, who is chairman of Cooper University Hospital, a Democratic leader, and a managing partner of the company that owns The Inquirer.

The KIPP proposal to build and operate what is on track to be the first of the state's privately run, publicly financed Renaissance schools was the only one of the four rejected plans to be reconsidered.

At its Sept. 25 meeting, the nine-member board unanimously rejected, with one abstention on each, proposals for Benjamin Franklin Academy, the Camden Center for Youth Development SMARTS Academy, and the Universal Cos. Renaissance School. The KIPP proposal was voted down then, also with one abstention.

Some board members who initially rejected KIPP complained that the project was too large, with five schools totaling 2,800 students. The plan the board approved Wednesday was unchanged in size.

Sara Davis was the only member to again vote against KIPP.

Ray Lamboy abstained and Brian Turner was absent. The rest of the board agreed to send the proposal for review by state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf.

The vote came after the resolution supporting the KIPP proposal was amended to include a clause that approval was conditional upon a contract between the board and the KIPP group. The amendment was the clincher for board member Kathryn Ribay, who had rejected the initial proposal.

"People can say things," Ribay said. "Things should be in writing."

School boards in Camden, Trenton, and Newark were given the power to approve up to four Renaissance schools each under the Urban Hope Act, sponsored by Donald Norcross and signed into law by Gov. Christie in January.

So far, only Camden has followed up on the measure, under which private entities can operate charter-type schools and get up to 95 percent of the amount spent on students in public schools.

Reconsideration of only the KIPP proposal drew an objection from Felix James, interim executive director of the Camden Center for Youth Development, a nonprofit behind the SMARTS Academy proposal.

"If you are reopening the process . . . why isn't everyone included?" he asked the board. "You shouldn't cherry-pick."

During the almost three-hour closed meeting, representatives of KIPP and the Cooper Foundation went in to explain their proposal. The dialogue consisted of "a lot of explaining and clarifying . . . and some 'We'll have to get back to you,' " board member Sean Brown said.

Brown, who earlier voted against the KIPP proposal, said he switched because he believed the state would never build the long-promised Lanning Square public school. The state "will do whatever they can so it doesn't happen," he said. "And they have the power."

Former Lanning Square principal Elsa Suarez called the long stall of the Lanning Square public school plan "a crime."

Board President Kathryn Blackshear said she was voting in favor of the KIPP proposal because "I know this school board will never have money to build a Lanning Square school."

Some in the audience then started shouting in protest.

The state spent nearly $11 million to demolish the school, acquire land (including eminent domain), and commission architectural plans.


Contact Claudia Vargas at 856-779-3917, cvargas@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @InqCVargas. Read her blog, "Camden Flow," at www.philly.com/camden_flow

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