CHESTERFIELD: Turkish school taps on township’s door

Officials have tabled a proposed ordinance amendment that, if approved, would pave the way for an Islamic organization to bring a private boarding school to the community.

by Jen Samuel, Special Writer
CHESTERFIELD — Officials have tabled a proposed ordinance amendment that, if approved, would pave the way for an Islamic organization to bring a private boarding school to the community.
   In addition to accepting day students to fill halls and classrooms at 295 Bordentown-Chesterfield Road, the center’s proposal would include a dormitory, necessitating an amendment since it would be located in the agriculture zone.
   The Chesterfield Township Committee tabled the measure just before midnight last Thursday. An amended measure is slated for further discussion Nov. 14. It was first introduced Sept. 26.
   The Oct. 10 municipal meeting was held inside that state-of-the art multi-million facility, Chesterfield Township Elementary School, 30 Saddle Way.
   ”We would like to dorm children on the property,” said Robbinsville-based attorney Margaret Carmeli on behalf of the Turkish American Community Center.
   Hundreds of Chesterfield residents gathered to learn more about the proposed school at the Township Committee hearing on the ordinance.
   ”It would have an Islamic component just as a Catholic school has a Catholic component,” Ms. Carmeli stated.
   The Chesterfield Board of Education entered into a $1.8 million deal on June 12 to sell the old elementary school, which sits on 21 acres, to the Turkish American Community Center, of Lanham, Maryland.
   Its founder and president, Behran Toran, answered questions fielded by Chesterfield Mayor Richard LoCascio, alongside a team of lawyers and other supporters.
   Mr. Toran said, “We are completely a private school.”
   The organization recently built the largest Islamic mosque in North America as part of a $100 million, five-building cultural center project on 15 acres in Lanham, a dozen miles outside of Washington, D.C.
   Turkish American Community Center representatives said its aim is to provide education to youth in a cultural setting with a religious component. It was founded in 1993.
   In response to some Chesterfield residents, center representatives said it advocated “moderate Islam.”
   At least one person in the audience asked if the school would be practicing Sharia law while another asked if its funding came from the Turkish government.
   Elif Eris, public relations coordinator for the Turkish American Community Center, was unavailable as of press time.
   Another resident asked for a social and economic impact study, causing the packed gymnasium to erupt in applause.
   No renderings of the proposed private school complex were provided to the audience.
   Chief of Police Kyle Wilson, who found no major concerns with the proposed facility, presented an impact study on public safety.
   The center is looking to enroll up to 500 students if the sale goes through, including hosting as many 150 boarding students with a curriculum spanning pre-k to high school levels. Adult supervisors would also be housed.
   A majority of residents urged the municipal government against permitting dormitories in Chesterfield’s agricultural zone. Some people encouraged the committee to move forward.
   School officials have maintained that residents would reap tax benefits from the sale.
   Brian Meincke, school board president, said that the $1.8 million deal would help taxpayers pay the new elementary school’s $37 million price tag.
   Mr. Meincke said that the district was paying $20,000 per year on the old school’s upkeep.
   Several residents said the $1.8 million deal would serve as a temporary solution to bigger problems such as where to relocate the municipal government from inadequate quarters on Route 528.
   Some residents suggested the municipal government relocate from its current facility into the old school instead of selling the property.
   Other people pushed for a commercial buyer.
   On the Chesterfield Township School District website, a February 2011 price tag for the old school was listed at no less than $2.1 million.
   The new elementary school opened its doors in December 2011, John Snuffin, district business administrator, said Tuesday. He noted the old elementary school opened around 1965.
   At last week’s meeting local officials and the Turkish American Community Center said the 295 Bordentown-Chesterfield Road property lacks operational water or sewer systems. It sits on major highway frontage and the sale awaits a state inspection by the Department of Environmental Protection.
   Mayor LoCascio did not respond to multiple requests for additional comment.