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7-24-12 Education Issues in the News
The Record - N.J. lawmakers vow to grill acting education chief on residency, education ties

The Record - N.J. Supreme Court ruling expands drug free school zones

NJ Spotlight - Urban Hope Act Brings Renaissance Schools to Camden…District to entertain bids for public schools run by nonprofits

The Record - N.J. lawmakers vow to grill acting education chief on residency, education ties

Monday July 23, 2012, 7:46 PM



Lawmakers said Monday that when acting Education Commissioner Chris Cerf has a confirmation hearing Thursday, they will grill him on a host of issues ranging from his actual residency and charter school oversight to relationships with consultants.

Cerf has been on the job for a year and a half, but his confirmation hearing was held up because Sen. Ron Rice (D-Essex) used senatorial courtesy to block him. That privilege allows senators to prevent hearings of gubernatorial appointees who live in their counties. In return, Governor Christie did not act to fill vacant judgeships in Essex County, which created a backlog of cases.

Nicholas Scutari, D-Union, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee that will hold the hearing, said it was finally scheduled because Cerf had shown enough proof — through his driver’s license and apartment lease — of his new residence in Montgomery, Somerset County. Cerf has said he splits his time between his family’s home in Montclair and an apartment closer to Trenton.

Scutari said it was important to hold the hearing and “break the logjam in Essex.” He said he wanted to hear Cerf answer questions about where he lives, his prior dealings with private consulting firms, tenure reform and other education plans.

“I would expect the commissioner might have some difficult questions,” Scutari said. “Unless we’re totally dissatisfied with the job he’s done and want to rebuke all of the governor’s education programs, I would imagine his commissioner would get an opportunity to get confirmed.”

The judiciary committee has eight Democrats and five Republicans. If it approves the commissioner’s nomination, the full Senate votes on it.

One committee member is Sen. Loretta Weinberg, D-Teaneck, who said she wants to hear Cerf address her concerns about charter schools, including their approval, accountability and funding process. She cited public school districts’ struggles to set aside millions for charter proposals that are eventually rejected or delayed, and the difficulties faced by school boards trying to set district budgets with such uncertainty. She also wants to hear about research on pros and cons of online charters, and how much districts should pay for a model that is less expensive than brick-and-mortar schools.

“In some ways the hearing is coming at a good time,” she said. “We’ve had a fair amount of experience with him as acting commissioner.”

Cerf was named acting education chief in December 2010, four months after Christie fired Bret Schundler from the post after a bitter dispute over the state’s botched application for a $400 million federal education grant.

Email: brody@northjersey.com

The Record - N.J. Supreme Court ruling expands drug free school zones

Monday July 23, 2012, 8:02 PM



The state Supreme Court expanded drug free school zones on Monday, ruling that the restricted areas begin at the edges of properties that have schools on them – and cover areas not dedicated to academic use.

The zones, which extend 1,000 feet out from primary and secondary schools in the state, provide for enhanced penalties for certain crimes committed within their borders.

Monday’s decision affects more than 3,700 public and private schools throughout the state.

Barrington McDonald, who struck and seriously injured a pedestrian in 2007 while driving under the influence of alcohol, had asked the court to let him withdraw a guilty plea he made in connection with the incident.

McDonald had pleaded guilty to second-degree assault by auto in a school zone, as well as driving while intoxicated and driving with a suspended license after an accident where he hit Robert Fields, who was crossing the street near the Tropicana Casino in Atlantic City, hurling him nearly 100 feet through the air.

Fields suffered multiple fractures and head trauma and was hospitalized for a week following the incident.

Police recorded McDonald’s blood alcohol content following the accident as 0.15 percent, nearly twice the legal limit.

Before McDonald was sentenced in state Superior Court, however, he attempted to withdraw his plea concerning the school zone.

The public defender representing McDonald argued that, though the collision occurred within 1,000 feet of Our Lady Star of the Sea Catholic Church, it was actually 1,048 feet away from the nearest part of the property used for the church’s parochial school – in this case, a parking lot.

Prosecutors, in arguing that the collision occurred within a school zone, included a nearby rectory and garden in their calculation.

An appellate panel disagreed with the defense’s argument, though it ordered the trial court judge to conduct a hearing to determine whether McDonald could withdraw his plea on another of the charges for technical reasons.

Associate Justice Anne Patterson, writing for a four-justice majority, affirmed the appellate court’s decision, saying that school zones should be drawn from the boundaries of whatever property they sit on – and not from particular buildings used for educational purposes.

“The Legislature clearly intends to avoid inquiries as to whether various portions of the ‘grounds or campus’ on which a school sits are commonly occupied by students,” she wrote, adding that the law is meant to establish a large “zone of safety” around schools.

But Justice Barry T. Albin, in a dissent joined by Judge Dorothea Wefing, who is temporarily filling a vacancy on the Supreme Court, argued that a jury should have determined where the school zone began.

“To uphold an unjust conviction, the majority had impaneled itself as a jury and abandoned settled legal principles,” he wrote.

Jack Lipari, the chief assistant prosecutor who argued the case before the court, said that because many religious schools share grounds with non-academic buildings and places of worship, the ruling “tends to assure that parochial school children receive a due measure of protection.”

He added that if McDonald’s argument was successful it would lead to a flood of appeals concerning the “dissection of parochial school complexes.”

The public defender’s office, which represented McDonald, declined to comment.

Email: campisi@northjersey.com


NJ Spotlight - Urban Hope Act Brings Renaissance Schools to Camden…District to entertain bids for public schools run by nonprofits

By John Mooney, July 24, 2012 in Education|

Camden moves closer this week to being the first test of the Urban Hope Act, with formal proposals due soon for the new and sometimes controversial Renaissance Schools.

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Pushed by Gov. Chris Christie, the Urban Hope Act was enacted last winter and opened the way for up to 12 Renaissance public schools to be built in three districts: Camden, Newark, and Trenton.

The schools would be built and operated by private nonprofit groups using public money, and while similar to charter schools, they would be operated with the consent of the local district.

But the Urban Hope Act has drawn its share of debate, with some critics calling it an example of the private sector moving in on public education -- to the detriment of the communities and students.

Camden, which is home to arguably the state’s lowest-performing schools, has been at the center of this controversy, with Christie announcing the act in the city and some high-profile players poised to make bids for local projects.

Those proposals are due to the local Board of Education by Friday of this week, and all eyes will be on the one from the Cooper Foundation, headed by George Norcross III, the well-known South Jersey Democratic leader.

As chairman of Cooper Health System, Norcross has openly said he would like to take advantage of the new law to finally get a school built in the Lanning Square neighborhood across from the University Hospital.

Yesterday, Cooper University Hospital’s chief of staff, Louis Bezich, said a proposal would be submitted Friday, but he would not provide details as to its location, partners, or scope until it is. Lanning Square has been the foundation’s main focus, he said, but there maybe other sites as well.

“While the former Lanning Square School site is our primary focus, there is the potential for additional sites as part of a comprehensive response,” he said in an email.

The state’s fiscal monitor in the district, Michael Azzara, said he expected maybe three proposals overall, with only a handful of organizations inquiring about the program. He would not name the others besides Cooper.

Azzara detailed that this is only the first step, with the local board making its decision as to whether to sign off on the proposals within the month and then the approved ones sent to the state for final approval.

The local board would only likely move on two sites in this first round, Azzara said, and the board’s president Kathryn Blackshear said it is premature to name what will be approved.

But she said the renaissance schools offer an alternative for the city that should be tried, a good alternative to charter schools that have made major inroads.

“The charters have come in and taken our money without always knowing the community. With these Renaissance schools, we’ll at least have some control.”

Blackshear's comments came at a lightly attended meeting last night on the new law and the decision process, held at the Octavius Catto Community School. Only about 15 people showed up, several of them local or state officials. The public input came from community activists and a small number of outspoken district employees.

Kevin Waters, a Camden high school graduate now working as a counselor in the district, said the project is an example of what he called the continued dismantling of urban districts, part of a national strategy led by conservative politicians like Christie.

He invoked the U.S. Supreme Court’s famous decision ending laws permitting segregation in schools, Brown v. Board of Education.

“Flash forward to 2012, and we are revisiting that concept and moving back to urban schools being lesser education,” he said.

He cited the 11 charter schools in the district and the fact the new Renaissance Schools will draw even greater public money. Under the law, the new schools would receive from the district 95 percent of the per-pupil costs for each student. Charter schools receive 90 percent.

‘When is enough enough?” he said.

As the one project that looks likeliest, the Lanning Square site has drawn most of the questions, too. The now-vacant property that once housed the Lanning Square School is owned by the district and the Schools Development Authority, which initially planned a new district school for the site. But those plans stalled under Christie, and questions abound as to whether it would be sold to Cooper or a development partner for the new Urban Hope Act school.

Azzara said no inquiries have been made to the district as yet, and SDA officials last week said the agency has no immediate plans for selling the property, although it continues to review its plans for “surplus” properties.


Garden State Coalition of Schools
160 W. State Street, Trenton New Jersey 08608