Bill would make 'Renaissance' schools eligible for tax credits

Posted: June 26, 2014

TRENTON - In an evening of drama, New Jersey lawmakers nearly fast-tracked a bill through the Legislature that would have made "Renaissance" schools in Camden eligible for tax credits and would offer early retirement benefits to certain employees of the public school district.

At the eleventh hour, however, a Senate panel pulled the part of the measure pertaining to the tax credits.

The bill, sponsored by Assemblyman Troy Singleton (D., Burlington) and Sen. James Beach (D., Camden) would have amended a statute to define construction related to Renaissance school projects in Camden as "qualified business facilities" under the Grow New Jersey Assistance Act.

It would also have exempted the charter-like schools from a requirement under the Grow New Jersey program that the application for and awarding of tax credits must be provided prior to commencement of construction of projects.

That could have benefited KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy, the city's first Renaissance school - a hybrid district-and-charter school that broke ground in March on a building in Lanning Square.

The Assembly and Senate Budget Committees were scheduled to vote on the bill late Tuesday, in time for the Legislature to hold a vote before the fiscal year ends Monday and a legislative recess begins.

"The idea behind [the bill] is recognizing that school construction is an economic development engine," Singleton said. He added that last year's Economic Opportunity Act was designed to promote such development.

"I feel, and some of my colleagues feel, this is a natural extension of that," he said. "It's going to create a significant number of jobs, both full-, part-time, and direct and indirect. So it fits with that law."

Then, with no immediate explanation, the tax credits were pulled from the measure.

Singleton said the bill was also intended to address the aftermath of layoffs in the Camden School District.

In May, the district laid off 272 district employees, 206 of them teachers, effective June 27, to bridge a $75 million revenue gap.

Because state law requires layoffs to be based on seniority, many teachers who have spent the most time with the district kept their jobs. The bill would provide incentives for those of a certain age and length of experience - and those with tenure - to retire, potentially paving the way to bring back some of the newer teachers who were laid off.

In Camden, the KIPP Renaissance school is to open in the fall, and two more such schools are slated to open should they receive final approval from the state. None of the three has its own completed buildings.

KIPP is to open in a temporary facility in the fall with 100 kindergarten students, who will then move to a permanent 110,000-square-foot facility for elementary and middle-school students in the fall of 2015, organizers have said.

The facility, at Lanning Square, will replace the district's original Lanning Square elementary school, torn down 12 years ago. The $45 million project is to include a cafeteria, auditorium space, gym, computer labs, playing fields, roof garden, and outdoor basketball court.

KIPP has proposed to eventually have five schools in a mini-network serving 3,000 children in Camden.

The academy was created in a partnership among KIPP Charter Schools; the Cooper Foundation, which is the charitable arm of Cooper University Health Care; and the Norcross Foundation, created by the Norcross family, including George E. Norcross III, who is chairman of Cooper University Hospital.

Norcross is the predominant Democratic political power broker in New Jersey. His brother Donald is a state senator who is running for Congress.

Two other school operators - Mastery Charter and Uncommon Schools - have received preliminary approval to open Renaissance schools in Camden. They received approval from the city and have started recruiting teachers and publicized enrollment, pending final state approval.

The district announced that Mastery and Uncommon would temporarily use space in currently underutilized public school buildings. Mastery will share the unused portion of Pyne Poynt Middle School, which will not take on a new sixth-grade class next year and will eventually be phased out.

Mastery has experience with such "turnaround" schools in Philadelphia. But critics in Camden have written letters to the education commissioner arguing that such turnarounds violate the law, since the language of the Urban Hope Act, which enables Renaissance schools, specifies new construction.

The bill being considered Tuesday would have revised the Urban Hope Act to say Renaissance schools may include existing facilities that have undergone substantial reconstruction.

The legislation would also offer benefits to school district employees who retire under the Public Employees' Retirement System or Teachers' Pension and Annuity fund.

Early retirement benefits would be available for one year, if the school board votes to provide them.

Employees would have one month to file an application for benefits and two months to retire.

Under the bill, employees who are at least 50 and have 25 years of service credit in the pension system would be eligible for an additional three years of service credit.

Employees who are 60 or older and have served at least 20 but less than 25 years would also qualify for that benefit.

The bill would provide an additional $500 pension a month for 24 months following retirement to employees who are at least 60 and who have served 10, but less than 25, years of credit.

Singleton said it would be difficult to assess the costs because it was impossible to know how many employees would apply for the benefits.

Asked earlier in the evening why the bill was being rushed through the Legislature, Singleton said Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D., Hudson) had asked him to sponsor it.

"I think, as we get to the end of this time of year, there are some issues that take high priority," Singleton said. "This is one that popped up on the screen."



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