Newark Superintendent Plans to Expel Charter School Amid Push to Expand District

PATRICK WALL, CHALKBEAT | JANUARY 27, 2020

NJ Spotlight

Newark Superintendent Roger León wants to reclaim building space as he seeks to expand the district.

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In a bid to reclaim district buildings so he can expand the school system, Newark’s superintendent wants to boot a charter school from its rented space and potentially to take back properties that his predecessor sold.

The district plans to eject People’s Prep Charter School from the public school building where it rents space, which would allow a district magnet school in that building to grow, Roger León said last month in a letter to the state. The district is also reviewing its leases with other charter schools that rent district space, a spokesperson confirmed — a move that could have other charters packing in the future.

Meanwhile, León is scrutinizing the sales of 12 school buildings that his predecessor offloaded in 2016 as a way to raise revenue. At a school board meeting last week, León suggested the district may be able to take back some of the properties if their new owners are not using them as intended. “I want people to know they were our buildings and I’m looking at what is being done with them,” he said, without explaining how the district could regain control of the properties.

The search for space comes as the 36,000-student district has added hundreds of additional students to its rosters and several new schools are slated to open. León’s focus on expansion contrasts sharply with his recent predecessors, state-appointed superintendents who sought to downsize the district by closing traditional schools, selling off empty buildings, and renting space to charter schools.

“Our strategy in this administration is to actually grow the district,” León said in 2018.

People’s Prep is a small charter high school that has rented space in the former Camden Middle School building since 2011. Along with three other Newark charter schools, it is undergoing a periodic renewal process in which the state must decide whether to allow the schools to continue operating.

In December, León urged the state to close all four schools, arguing that they drain funding from traditional schools and do not adequately serve students with special needs.

León’s case against People’s Prep

As part of his case against People’s Prep, León said the school had violated its lease with the district by taking up more than its allotted space in the shared building. He also said that People’s Prep was blocking the magnet school, Bard Early College High School, from expanding. For both reasons, the district plans to not renew People’s Prep’s lease after it expires on June 30, meaning it will “likely need to vacate the premises,” León wrote to the state education commissioner on Dec. 13.

Just two weeks later, the district sent People’s Prep a notice alleging that it defaulted on its lease — the first step in the legal process of booting the school.

This month, a lawyer for People’s Prep sent the commissioner a strongly worded response to León’s letter. The lawyer, Thomas O. Johnston, noted that the school has a higher graduation rate and enrolls a larger percentage of students with disabilities than the Newark Public Schools average.

Johnston said that People’s Prep had not exceeded its rented space. And he alleged that the district called for the school’s closure in order to seize its building space.

“Newark District is attempting to uproot the educational lives of hundreds of PPCS students,” Johnston wrote, “because it covets space that PPCS is currently using to educate Newark’s children.”

Johnston said the district wants to use part of People’s Prep’s space as a “detention center” for students who are picked up by truancy officers that León hired last year. A district spokesperson denied that claim, but otherwise declined to comment on Johnston’s letter.

Allowing charter schools to occupy all or part of district-owned buildings has long been a contentious issue in Newark and other cities. Critics say the buildings belong to district-run schools, not charter schools, which are privately operated public schools. But supporters say the policy gives families more school options while allowing the district to raise money by renting out empty or under-used buildings.

Charters developed when district was under state control

In 2012, the Newark school board voted down a plan to allow charter schools to operate inside several district buildings. But because the state controlled the district at the time, the state-appointed superintendent, Cami Anderson, was able to overrule the vote and allow the charters to lease the space.

Today, at least four charter school operators rent district space: People’s Prep, KIPP, North Star Academy, and Great Oaks Legacy. While the district is reviewing all the leases, León has only signaled plans to end People’s Prep’s lease.

KIPP and North Star each have two leases with the district. Both networks have at least one lease with a provision allowing it to be extended for up to 30 years. Spokespeople for both networks said the networks have strong relationships with the district and feel confident about their leases.

In addition to renting out space, the district has also sold some of its buildings. In 2016, Newark’s state-appointed superintendent, Christopher Cerf, asked the Newark Housing Authority to sell a dozen mostly vacant district properties as a way to plug a budget hole.

By 2018, the agency had sold most of the properties, including one former school that was sold to a group connected to Marion P. Thomas Charter School. Last year, a federal grand jury began looking into that sale, issuing subpoenas to the charter school group and the housing authority, according to a report by NorthJersey.com.

Now, León says the district should try to take back any of those properties that it can, though he has not explained how he would do that.

Antoinette Baskerville-Richardson, a former school board member who had opposed the sale of the buildings, applauded León’s efforts to seek additional space for traditional schools. She said his efforts reflect a new approach to managing the district now that the state no longer controls Newark’s schools.

“The superintendent’s strategy involves reclaiming space, but it also involves reclaiming his authority to rebuild a locally controlled district,” said Baskerville-Richardson, now the mayor’s chief education officer. “I think it’s a new day.”

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