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7-26-12 Education and Related Issues in the News
Star Ledger - N.J. Senate panel to discuss acting state education chief Christopher Cerf's qualifications, residency

NJ Spotlight - Hybrid Virtual Charters Raise the Ire of New Jersey Educators…With fully online schools out of contention, critics take up charters that mix virtual with conventional education

The Record - Using Rutgers case, justices raise bar on open meetings… “In a ruling that could affect the way New Jersey's school boards, town councils and government agencies do business, the Supreme Court ruled…”

Star Ledger - N.J. Senate panel to discuss acting state education chief Christopher Cerf's qualifications, residency

Published: Thursday, July 26, 2012, 6:00 AM

By Jessica Calefati/The Star-LedgerThe Star-Ledger

TRENTON — After 18 months of delays, the Senate Judiciary Committee today will consider Christopher Cerf's qualifications to run the Department of Education.

Gov. Chris Christie first nominated Cerf in December 2010, but consideration of his appointment stalled when state Sen. Ron Rice (D-Essex) used a practice known as senatorial courtesy to block Cerf without giving a reason.

Democrats finally decided to give Cerf a full vetting in part to alleviate a "logjam" in Essex County, where Christie has refused to appoint any new judges until Cerf is considered by the Senate Judiciary Committee, chairman Nicholas Scutari (D-Union) has said.

Cerf's residency will likely receive as much scrutiny from the committee as his professional background, Scutari added.

Cerf owns a home in Montclair that he shares with his wife and children. But in January, Cerf said he had moved to an apartment in Montgomery, a Somerset County town represented by a Republican state senator who has said he supports Cerf.

A few weeks later, Cerf's appointment his another snag when he stumbled over his words when asked in an interview where he lives. He responded "Montclair" before correcting himself and saying "Montgomery."

That misstep upset some members of the committee who yanked his name from their agenda a second time nearly six months ago.

Cerf has previously said he "splits" his time between his Montclair home and his Montgomery apartment, which is much closer to Trenton where the Department of Education offices are located. The amount of time a resident must spend at a particular address to consider it a primary residence will also be debated today, Scutari has said.

The hearing is set to begin at 10 a.m.


NJ Spotlight - Hybrid Virtual Charters Raise the Ire of New Jersey Educators…With fully online schools out of contention, critics take up charters that mix virtual with conventional education

By John Mooney, July 26, 2012 in Education|

The Christie administration’s decision to postpone the opening of two virtual charter schools may have put off one challenge, but its decision to approve two other schools that rely heavily on online lessons could spark off another challenge.

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A coalition led by the New Jersey Education Association sent a letter to acting Education Commissioner Chris Cerf this week asking him to reconsider the approval of the Merit Preparatory Charter School and the Newark Preparatory Charter School, both in Newark.

The groups contended that the schools, which would bring students into a common space everyday and mix online learning with face-to-face teaching, are a significant departure from what is currently permitted under state statute.

Several of the same organizations had sent a similar letter to Cerf two weeks ago warning about a pair of schools' all-online programs, allowing students as young as kindergarten to take a full course of classes from home. Cerf ultimately postponed the opening of those programs for a year, questioning whether they were ready to operate.

The groups used much of the same argument in the latest letter, saying these so-called “hybrid” programs were largely virtual programs in disguise.

“Indeed, the Merit Preparatory Charter School of Newark and Newark Prep appear to be online, virtual charter schools with the veneer of a traditional bricks-and-mortar charter school to mask their true nature,” said the letter.

Newark Prep would be operated by K12 Inc., the nation’s largest online education company and also the primary operator of both the postponed virtual schools.

Meanwhile, K12 yesterday released Newark Prep’s latest budget totaling $2.5 million for the first year. The education program itself will be $1.9 million, or roughly $13,860 for each of its 150 students, the company said. All the students would come from Newark.

The budget also includes a $550,000 fee to K12, but the company would waive the fee in the first year, according to Peter Stewart, the company’s vice president for school development.

Vince Giordano, the executive director of the teachers' union, said yesterday that Newark Prep and Merit Prep, operated by a separate management organization, posed many of the same issues as the all-online schools.

The state law authorizing charter schools was enacted in 1995 before there was online schooling to the level that exists today, providing few if any controls or methods for monitoring their programs.

The letter highlighted that an amendment to the 1995 law specifically put some controls on the state from “any recommended expansion, modification, or termination of the program until the Legislature acts on that recommendation.”

Giordano said the group would allow some time for Cerf to consider their argument, but he said formal legal challenge could follow. The politics of the moment was not lost on him, either, with Cerf up for his long-awaited confirmation hearing today before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Charter schools in general and online schools in particular are likely to be a line of questioning.

“We’ll let him think about it, and hopefully we’ll get the same result as last time,” Giordano said, referring to the postponement of the virtual schools. “If not, we will definitely look at the legal aspects.”

Others signing the letter are the Educational Law Center in Newark, the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association, the NAACP, and the Latino Institute.

The principals group is a new party to the challenge. Two other groups in the first letter appeared to drop off and were not involved in this letter: the state’s school boards association and the superintendents' association.

“We need more time to look at the hybrid model and review how our policy would apply to it,” said Frank Belluscio, a spokesman for the school boards group. “Based on that analysis, we will determine if and how we will address the matter with NJDOE.”

Efforts to contact Cerf were unsuccessful yesterday, and there was no further comment from his office.

Stewart, the K12 vice president, said he was surprised at the protests.

“For the virtual schools, it’s pretty standard to get the resistance, but I've never seen this for the [hybrids],” he said from K12’s Virginia headquarters. “They are a relatively new model for us, but still, students are showing up to school every day and working with teachers.”

Stewart yesterday provided the school’s first-year budget as presented to the state, detailing where the funds will come from and where they will be spent. Overall, it broke down similarly to a standard school, with costs going to instruction, administrative, and support services.

However, some numbers jumped out. The largest chunk was $1.2 million for teachers salaries and other instructional costs, or roughly 60 percent. But administrative costs represented close to 30 percent of the overall budget, higher than the norm. The bulk is in salaries ($190,000) and overall benefits ($238,000), and there was also $241,000 for professional or consultant services.

“That’s not unusual in the startup to have consultants get the programs going,” said Stewart.

In addition, close to $500,000 is budgeted for annual rent and facilities costs. The school plans to open on Broad Street in downtown Newark in space currently being renovated.

As for K12’s fee, Stewart said that too was standard for its operations, but it would continue to be waived until the school grows to its full size. “When it is large enough, it will pay it, but the way this is structured, we will be the last to be paid until they can afford it,” he said.

The Record - Using Rutgers case, justices raise bar on open meetings… In a ruling that could affect the way New Jersey's school boards, town councils and government agencies do business, the Supreme Court ruled…”

Thursday, July 26, 2012



In a ruling that could affect the way New Jersey's school boards, town councils and government agencies do business, the Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the Rutgers Board of Governors violated state law by not providing enough information to the public.

The unanimous decision tightens requirements on public bodies to post detailed agendas of upcoming meetings and seeks to reduce the use of vague language that makes it hard to figure out what topics a government plans to discuss.

The court also said that the Rutgers board should have avoided discussing certain topics in a confidential part of a 2008 meeting that should have been covered in public.

"The decision sets important precedent that government bodies cannot be so vague in their meeting notice as to effectively hide from the public the issues they expect to discuss," said Ed Barocas, the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, which joined in the suit.

At issue is a 2008 meeting in which the governors, one of the school's two governing bodies, discussed a controversial decision to spend more than $100 million on an expansion of the Rutgers football stadium.

Francis J. McGovern Jr., the Rutgers alumnus and New Brunswick-based lawyer who brought the suit, said after attending meetings to protest the school's spending, he became upset that the school was violating the Open Public Meetings Act, or Sunshine Law, by issuing pre-meeting agendas that were overly vague.

The law, in an attempt to encourage public involvement, requires government bodies to publish agendas before their meetings.

In this case, the school's notice didn't contain any specific agenda items to be discussed in a portion of the meeting closed to the public.

Instead, it said the governors would "discuss matters falling within contract negotiation and attorney-client privilege."

"I saw the notices weren't proper," McGovern said.

The court agreed with him, writing that the notice was too "generic."

"The board had an obligation to include as part of the notice of the meeting of September 10 the agenda of the meeting to the extent it was known" by the governors, it said.

The court also ruled that the governors improperly discussed information concerning proposed policy changes and the reformulation of certain university guidelines in a private portion of the meeting.

The Sunshine Law requires most discussions by government boards to happen in public. A body can enter into an executive session only when members are talking about subjects covered by certain exceptions, mainly concerning personnel matters and litigation.

Though the governors' discussion topics weren't covered by these exceptions, Rutgers' lawyers argued they "indirectly relate" to confidential matters.

The court didn't buy that argument. It did, however, overturn part of an appellate division ruling, which would have required public bodies to limit executive sessions to the end of meetings.

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