Urban Hope Act supporters regroup

Gov. Chris Christie has rejected changes to the Urban Hope Act, specifically taking exception to language that would allow Camden public school teachers to retire early.

The change, he wrote in his conditional veto Monday, would put too much of a strain on an already floundering state pension system.

“The bill ... authorizes early retirement incentives to certain school district employees, and may exacerbate the solvency of the pension system,” Christie wrote.

Christie asked the Legislature to reconsider the bill without the retirement incentives. But the governor was clear in his support of other changes to the 2012 law, which allowed for the creation of Renaissance schools in Camden, Newark and Trenton.

The changes, sponsored by Assemblyman Troy Singleton, include an extended application period for Urban Hope projects in Camden and permission for Renaissance school operators to use reconstructed facilities rather than building new schools.

“I’m disappointed the governor didn’t sign the bill as presented to him,” Singleton said Tuesday.

The Burlington County Democrat added he would meet with his co-sponsor, state Sen. Jim Beach, D-Voorhees, and other constituents soon to decide if they plan to reintroduce the legislation.

But some organizations, including the New Jersey Education Association, already have made up their minds.

Though initially supportive of the Urban Hope Act, the state’s largest teachers union has since pulled back because of what it calls an “already out-of-control corporate takeover of the Camden Public Schools.”

“The original legislation enacted in 2012 was never intended to give private operators a blank check to take over buildings, skim off higher achieving students and drain the resources of the Camden schools in the process,” said NJEA President Wendell Steinhauer.

Camden Schools spokesman Brendan Lowe said the “legislation has been on our radar.”

“We understand the NJEA was in support of a voluntary early retirement program, but the governor went in a different direction. Regardless, we remain focused on ensuring there’s an excellent school for every family in every neighborhood.”

The struggling Camden school system will see the state’s first three Renaissance schools open this fall. KIPP, Mastery and Uncommon have been approved to open a total of 15 schools in the city, with a total enrollment of 9,300 students.

The potential size of the plan has caught the attention of many supporters of the traditional public school system, who feel the writing is on the wall for school closures.

Sen. Ronald Rice, D-Essex, even sponsored a bill that mandated the state get approval from local school boards, not just the state commissioner of education, when it closes a public school.

Christie vetoed that legislation Friday.

“The state should not be able to just come into a school district and reorganize it as it pleases, without the input of parents and the community,” Rice said.

Christie felt the existing law “adequately and appropriately sets forth the proper procedures for closing a school.

“(The legislation) will not further the goal of equipping the department with sufficient information before a decision is made, but instead could impede a superintendent from properly managing resources and school facilities in their district,” Christie wrote in his denial of the bill.

Staunch supporters of traditional public education argued otherwise.

“In vetoing this bill, the governor made clear his belief that he should be able to forcibly close public schools anywhere in the state, against the wishes of local communities,” Save Our Schools NJ said in a statement this week.

Original article