Charter school appealed

Opposition persists in Cherry Hill, as school district administrators and board of education members continue to meet with elected officials and administrators from neighboring school districts to discuss the implications of a charter school in the township.

Last month, the school district learned that Regis Academy Charter School, which was founded by Pastor Amir Khan, of Solid Rock Worship Center, received state Department of Education approval to open its doors next fall to students in kindergarten through fourth-grade.

The regional charter school, although based in Cherry Hill, would serve students from the township, along with students from Voorhees, Somerdale and Lawnside.

Cherry Hill School District officials say they are concerned about setting aside a projected $1.9 million from next year’s budget to support the publicly funded charter school.

According to preliminary estimates, based on projected enrollments at Regis Academy, the DOE estimates a contribution of $62,565 from Lawnside schools, $108,063 from Somerdale schools and $699,048 from Voorhees schools.

The Cherry Hill Board of Education solicitor, on behalf of the four districts involved, filed an appeal of the charter school on Oct. 28, said Susan Bastnagel, the district’s public-information officer.

Bastnagel said the Cherry Hill School District, according to DOE figures, is expected to foot the bill for 169 students to attend Regis Academy.

The district would begin contributing for those students in July 2012.

Once school is in session and the school reconciles how many students are actually enrolled in the school by October, the school district, Bastnagel said, would receive a revised payment schedule. If fewer than 169 students attend Regis Academy next fall, the district would be reimbursed.

But at that point, the damage is already done, said Superintendent Maureen Reusche in an Oct. 4 letter to state Sen. Jim Beach, urging him to support an appeal of the charter school.

“The district faces the very real possibility of eliminating programs, laying off teachers and raising class sizes as a direct result of a loss of funding should Cherry Hill students opt to attend Regis Academy,” Reusche writes. “Because the Cherry Hill students are not likely to come from a single school or grade level, we can’t simply close a school or close a classroom; rather, we will have to reduce the number of teachers and raise class sizes across the district.”

In addition to appealing the DOE’s approval of the charter school, residents and representatives from the involved districts attended the state senate education committee hearing last month on S2243 and S3301, a bill that would require voter approval at the annual school election prior to the establishment of a charter school.

Cherry Hill resident Loraine Carapellucci testified before the committee in mid-October, asking for a Senate vote in favor of the legislation, which would give voters a say as to whether a charter school could open in the municipality.

“As a Cherry Hill Township resident, I have more input into how large the sign will be on a local gas station than in whether there will be a charter school in my township. Sign changes must be approved in open meetings with time allotted for public input,” Carapellucci said. “Applications for charter schools are handled by the state in closed-door meetings, using a set of approval criteria that is kept so completely secret that open public records requests have not revealed the criteria for approval or even the names of the reviewers. Denied charter school applicants can meet with the state committee to revise the application, until it is approved. The charter school approval process is biased in favor of the applicant. There is no public input at all.”

The school district has maintained that it is not opposed to the specific charter school, but rather, the flawed approval and funding processes, along with the issue of educational need in the district, Bastnagel said.

Still, one response residents, school-district administrators and Mayor Bernie Platt have been looking for is the answer to just how the DOE makes its decision to grant a charter to an organization.

Khan, whose church came into question earlier this year when the Cherry Hill Police Department found evidence that many neighborhood burglaries were connected to an individual staying at the Solid Rock Worship Center in the Ashland section, previously said the organization had filed for charter approval the year before, but was denied by the DOE.

DOE spokesman Justin Barra said the process for granting charters includes three main stages.

First, he said, an application is submitted and reviewed by a team of internal DOE staff and members of an outside organization, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. This group uses a rubric to judge the merit of applicants.

After the application is reviewed, the group submits a request to the applicant for additional information.

The third step is an in-person interview with the applicant and the team of reviewers.

Then, Barra said, the team of reviewers submits comments and recommendations to the DOE charter school office, which then makes recommendations to the DOE commissioner.

Last week, Cherry Hill’s BOE solicitor filed an Open Public Records Act request for the information used to judge the merit of the application and is awaiting a response.