Charter school reeling after state blocks opening

Documentation deficiencies,
operational, governance
problems cited by Librera

Staff Writer

Documentation deficiencies,
operational, governance
problems cited by Librera
Staff Writer

Two and a half weeks before the Jersey Shore Charter School was to open its doors, state Commissioner of Education William L. Librera pulled the plug on it by refusing to grant final approval for its charter.

Librera said the Jersey Shore Charter School was not in compliance with the Charter School Program Act of 1995. He cited "deficiencies" in documentation and "substantive operational and governance problems."

The commissioner’s decision, conveyed in a letter faxed Monday to Kathleen Devine, president of the school’s Board of Trustees, set off a scramble to quickly file an appeal and to persuade parents at a hastily called meeting not to withdraw their children and enroll them in another school.

David Apy, the lawyer from McCarter & English representing the school, said he would seek a stay of the commissioner’s order. If that is unsuccessful, he said, he would file an emergent appeal with the state Board of Education, also seeking a stay of the commissioner’s action. He cautioned, however, that the board tends to give "real deference" to the commissioner.

The school, he noted, is working under a time constraint. To make the Sept. 9 opening date, he said, the school should have a decision by next week.

"Everyone would like to have a crystal ball to know the outcome," he told the more than 75 parents and board members crowded into the Oceanport Community Center. "I can’t tell you that."

Apy, speaking at a trustees meeting that followed the meeting with parents, said if the process went beyond the state Board of Education, it would be in the Appellate Division of Superior Court.

Devine told the parents at both meetings that if they withdraw their students, it could spell the end of the charter school.

"We ask you to have confidence in us and not withdraw your children until we know more," she said. Asked how long they should wait before putting their children in another school, she said, "I would ask you to wait until the 9th."

Devine said a total of 166 students were enrolled in the charter school, but it only had 156 students in the eyes of the Department of Education because the school didn’t have transfer cards for the other 10 who are enrolled.

When the school’s application for a charter was approved by the commissioner on Jan. 15, 2003, its charter was to serve Eatontown, West Long Branch and Oceanport. It was authorized to have fifth-, sixth- and seventh-grade classes with a total of 180 students in its initial year, and to add an eighth grade the following year and grow to 240 students.

But the current enrollment has no students from Oceanport, five from West Long Branch and 16 from Eatontown, for only 21 from the target towns, according to Devine. She said the other students included 63 children from Asbury Park, 28 from Long Branch, 30 from Neptune, 10 from Neptune City, seven from Tinton Falls, four from Ocean Township, and one each from Monmouth Beach, Highlands and Toms River.

Devine said the school has a waiting list of 28 students, but she didn’t think it could accept any of them now that it doesn’t have a charter.

Long Branch earlier had challenged Jersey Shore’s charter on the grounds the school was siphoning white students from Long Branch, leading to a racial imbalance there. But Librera said in his three-page letter to Devine that the 23 students who were to come from Long Branch would have had a minimal effect on Long Branch and would not have had a "significant negative racial impact" on that school district. Data he included with the letter showed that of the 23 students, nine were black, four were Hispanic and 10 were white.

The commissioner was concerned that so few students were coming from the three towns for which the school was chartered.

"It is noted that a significant portion of the presented July enrollment is of students from outside the identified region of residence, which raises concerns about the ‘perceived need’ of a charter school in that region of residence," he wrote.

Librera also cited fluctuations in enrollment, which he said indicate inadequate stability to sustain fiscal viability. Other reasons he gave for denying final approval were that essential members of the school staff had not been hired, and failure to submit documentation on time on the renovation of a building for the school at 2 Meridian Way, off Industrial Way, in Eatontown.

Devine told the parents that the staff Librera complained about not being on board yet were being hired by the trustees that night. She said they were getting their certificate of occupancy for the school facility on Monday.

The Jersey Shore Charter School had hoped to open in the fall of 2003, but when it didn’t have a building for the school, it took a planning year off.

Devine told the audience that $300,000 in federal money — taxpayers’ money — had gone into getting the charter school up and running, which, if it doesn’t open, will have gone to waste.

In summary, Librera said that as of Aug. 16, the final deadline to fulfill the conditions set forth in his Jan. 15, 2003, letter, on which his approval of Jersey Shore’s application for a charter was made contingent, revealed "significant" problems. Devine said, in retrospect, the school organizers should have called the Department of Education on the 16th to say they needed another week.

Apy said the first thing they would do in seeking the stay is go over the items listed in Librera’s letter and respond to them.

Kathryn Forsyth, a spokeswoman for Librera, said the Jersey Shore Charter School had been given every opportunity to resolve the problems.

"There were just too many difficulties here," she said. "We have learned that unless these places get off to a strong start, they’re going to have problems."