Luongo seeks to run N.J. charter school

Posted: April 27, 2013

A former high-profile South Jersey politician who spent almost a year in federal prison for misusing campaign and township funds is seeking state approval for a plan to open Gloucester County's first charter school, even though he is barred from working in the classroom.

New Jersey officials will not say if the conviction of former Washington Township Mayor and one-term Assemblyman Gerald J. Luongo might impede his chances of getting a charter. But Florida education officials have called into question the assertion by Luongo that he already is involved with a charter school there.

The Broward County school district that approved the school, Academic Solutions Academy, says the school did not open for the 2012-13 year because it failed to provide a certificate of occupancy. A district spokeswoman disputed that Luongo was even associated with the school.

Luongo insists that he is part of the group behind the school, saying he and a "legal partner" are at odds.

He says he is moving forward with his plan in Gloucester County, where his proposed Creative Visions Charter School would be a focal point for the performing arts, a type of program Luongo says the county lacks.

County schools "are unable to provide the truly talented students in music, dance, art, the visual and applied arts the education required for their personal growth," given staffing and scheduling constraints, reads the application submitted to the New Jersey Department of Education.

The school would be in Mantua Township and would serve nine school districts.

Luongo, 74, is a former music teacher who served as mayor of Washington Township from 1989 to 2000, with stints on the school board and in the General Assembly. He was seen as a rising star in the state GOP.

In November 2001, he pleaded guilty to taking nearly $36,000 from his campaign fund and a township charity for his personal use, including vacation rentals, family dinners, and home cable service. Five months later, a federal judge sentenced Luongo to 13 months in prison on mail fraud and other charges.

After spending nearly a year in a Florida federal prison camp, he was released in May 2003 and returned to education. A year and a half ago, he said, he opened Academic Solutions Academy.

But a spokeswoman for the Broward County School District, which approves charter schools there, said the school did not open for the 2012-13 academic year because it did not provide a certificate of occupancy on time. Moreover, said spokeswoman Tracy Clark, Luongo is not a founder of the school or a member of its governing board.

Asked by The Inquirer about the discrepancy, Luongo said he had sent a letter to the district threatening legal action if it did not recognize him as a legitimate partner in the project.

Luongo said he wanted to build charter schools in several states to cement his legacy.

He is barred from teaching in New Jersey. In 2007, the state Department of Education's Board of Examiners, citing his guilty plea, revoked Luongo's licenses as a teacher, principal, and school business administrator.

As president of Creative Visions Charter School Inc., Luongo said, he would also market the school in Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and other states, and would not be involved in day-to-day operations.

"I really believe I want to leave something significant that I can put my imprint on," Luongo, who now lives in Pompano Beach, Fla., said in an interview. "I feel like education is where I belong."

Some Gloucester County educators oppose his proposal, fearing it will siphon money from the district and saying students already have plenty of access to the arts in the public schools.

In Glassboro, the high school is a so-called choice school, where students from other districts can enroll. It features a performing arts academy in which juniors and seniors can take classes at Rowan University.

Glassboro High School will also add a science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) academy next year, said Jody Rettig, a district spokeswoman.

In a joint statement, Michael Dicken and Mark Silverstein, superintendents of the Gloucester County Institute of Technology and Glassboro schools, said in part: "With significant options in the performing arts currently accessible to students, the question becomes: Is it good stewardship of taxpayer dollars to fund a charter school in a county where widespread opportunities exist in the very same areas?"

Pete Mauro, 43, who grew up with Luongo's children, disagreed. "I think GCIT is a great school for what it offers," said Mauro, of Mullica Hill. But, he added, "I think that the stuff he's offering isn't really offered for kids that want to go into" the arts.

The Department of Education reviews applications for criteria such as whether the proposal represents the views of various stakeholders in the community, including parents and teachers; qualifications for implementing effective governance; and a demonstration of need. Boards must also conduct background checks.

The department received 38 applications for new charter schools in March and will approve or deny them by Sept. 30. It will then assess proposed schools for organizational leadership and capacity, and will issue charters in July 2014. A department spokeswoman would not specifically address Luongo's application.

If approved, Creative Visions would open for the 2014-15 school year.

There are 86 charter schools in New Jersey, including 11 in Camden County, but none in Gloucester, Cape May, Salem, Ocean, and Hunterdon Counties, according to the department. Nationwide, the number of charter schools has increased from 1,651 in 2001 to 5,714 in 2012, according to the Center for Education Reform in Washington, which advocates for charters.

Like traditional public schools, charters receive public funding, but they differ in that they are not governed by local school boards and are open to students from all districts.

Luongo has hinted that his past could derail the project, writing in an April 6 e-mail to "founders, trustees, friends, and family" that "if that is indeed the case then I will need to deal with that situation when it occurs and IF it occurs."

"Perhaps, since I was high profile, I paid a price. I accepted that and I moved forward," he said in the interview. "I would hope after 75 years, that one little part of my life isn't going to define me."


Contact Andrew Seidman at 856-779-3846, aseidman@phillynews.com, or follow @AndrewSeidman on Twitter.

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