Bill passes expanding Camden's 'Renaissance' schools' options

Camden High School student Lashawna Smith holds a sign during the walkout by teens from four schools, who then went to the Board of Education building.
Camden High School student Lashawna Smith holds a sign during the walkout by teens from four schools, who then went to the Board of Education building.
Posted: June 30, 2014

A Camden-specific bill expanding facility-use options available to "Renaissance" schools narrowly passed Thursday in the state Legislature, to the frustration of the state's largest teachers union.

The bill, approved in both the Senate and Assembly, also authorizes early retirement incentives for Camden City School District employees - a provision the union supported.

"On the whole, we consider this a loss, but hopefully it will allow some of our members to continue doing what they love, which is working with and teaching New Jersey's children," said Ginger Gold Schnitzer, government relations director for the New Jersey Education Association.

The legislation offers hefty retirement packages to employees in the district, which in May laid off 272 employees, 206 of them teachers, to bridge a $75 million revenue gap.

State law requires layoffs to be based on seniority, so many of the teachers who lost their jobs could return should the district offer the retirement incentive to senior staff.

Early-retirement benefits would be available to employees under the Public Employees' Retirement System or Teachers' Pension and Annuity fund for one year, if the school board votes to provide them.

Republicans had criticized the bill, which has no cost estimate, saying it added to an already-overloaded pension system. Gov. Christie has been a supporter of charter and Renaissance schools, but his position on the measure was not immediately known.

School district spokesman Brendan Lowe said, "We are still reviewing the bill, but to the extent it makes more great neighborhood schools available to students and families, we are in favor. Whether it be an improved district school, charter school, or a new Renaissance school, all of our students deserve an excellent school."

The Office of Legislative Services said it could not provide a cost estimate because there was no way of knowing how many of the 582 eligible employees would take the package.

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.

A more-controversial portion of the bill deals with Camden Renaissance schools, district-charter hybrids created under the Urban Hope Act. The bill extends by one year the deadline for an organization to apply for a Renaissance school project, from January 2015 to January 2016, allowing time for more applicants.

State law says Camden can have up to four Renaissance school projects.

Camden has already approved KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy, which will open at Lanning Square in the fall with 100 kindergartners in a temporary facility. Two other charter-management organizations, Mastery Schools and Uncommon Schools, will also open in the fall in temporary locations, pending state approval.

All three have proposed multiple school buildings eventually serving hundreds of students.

The NJEA opposed the application extension, arguing that the state should wait to see if the first three projects were successful.

The bill originally included a provision that would have granted tax credits to build Renaissance schools. That provision was cut late Tuesday. Assemblyman Troy Singleton (D., Burlington), a sponsor of the bill, said he would revisit the item at a later point, but didn't want it to hinder passage.

"I think some of my colleagues were a little bit more apprehensive about moving that bill forward with that tied to it," he said. "This issue is so important to me, and I think to the people of the city of Camden, that I did not want my own personal feelings to tie that up."

Under the bill, introduced by Sen. James Beach (D., Camden) in the Assembly, Renaissance school operators could reconstruct existing facilities as part of their projects. They had been required to have all new construction.

In Camden, as enrollment has declined, some schools have closed in recent years and buildings have fallen into disrepair.

Gold Schnitzer, of the NJEA, called the state's failure to renovate its traditional public schools "shameful" and said the bill provided for renovations that the state should have handled.

"We have crumbling infrastructure in Camden, and it's disappointing we have to go through all of these channels to get new school buildings or to get substantially renovated school buildings," she said. "The state needs to live up to its obligation to provide safe, up-to-date buildings the children deserve."

856-779-3876 856-779-3876 @juliaterruso

Inquirer staff writer Andrew Seidman contributed to this article.

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