Sweeney agrees to Camden school bill without retirement incentives

State Senate President Stephen Sweeney says he will accept Gov. Christie's changes to a bill intended to expedite development of privately run public "Renaissance" schools in Camden.

Christie, a Republican, axed a provision in the legislation that would have allowed the Camden school board to provide pension sweeteners as early-retirement incentives to some district employees. The state-run district laid off 200 teachers last spring because of budget cuts.

"I am disappointed with the governor's conditional veto, but I am committed to moving the bill forward," Sweeney (D., Gloucester) said in a statement Tuesday.

"Camden schools have been financially mismanaged for decades, and the families of longtime teachers and staff deserve our support and assistance as we work to ensure students have access to the high-quality education they deserve," he said.

The original Urban Hope Act, which passed in 2012, allowed for the opening of district-charter hybrid Renaissance schools in Camden, Trenton, and Newark. Camden has approved three of four operators.

The latest bill would extend the application period by one year, to January 2016, for Renaissance projects in Camden. It would also nix a requirement in the 2012 bill that the schools use only new facilities. The first facility used by a Renaissance school would still have to be new, but the operators could subsequently renovate existing buildings.

Discussion that led to the proposed change cleared the way for two schools - Mastery and Uncommon - to open in the fall. They plan to use temporary facilities until a new one is constructed within three years. The state Department of Education approved both applications last month.

In his conditional veto message, released last week, Christie said most of the bill's provisions "are reasonable, measured, and appropriately crafted," but he said he cut the early-retirement package because it "may exacerbate the solvency of the pension system."

Christie has warned that New Jersey could go bankrupt without changes to its defined-benefit pension system. He has spent the summer campaigning for change but has yet to announce specific ideas.

Early-retirement incentives would "soften the impact of the layoffs" in Camden, said Steve Wollmer, spokesman for the state's largest teachers' union, the New Jersey Education Association. "For those who were laid off, their hope was to get an early retirement incentive to soften the blow."

The bill passed the Legislature in June.

Assemblyman Troy Singleton (D., Burlington), one of the bill's sponsors, accused the governor of hypocrisy, since he vetoed some funding for the pension system in the fiscal 2015 budget.

Nevertheless, Singleton said, "having schools be built in our cities that desperately need them is of critical importance."

A spokesman for Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D., Hudson) did not respond to a request for comment about whether that chamber would hold a vote on Christie's version of the bill.

The Senate's next voting session is scheduled for Sept. 22.

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