Thursday, January 31, 2013

Charter Expansions; The New Suburban Charter Battlefront In New Jersey

Florence Township is a small, close knit community with thriving public schools serving approximately 1,700 students.  In 2008, Commissioner Lucille Davies awarded the Riverbank Charter School of Excellence a four year charter to serve 144 Florence Township students in grades K-3 with absolutely NO input from the district.  Most parents in the district had no idea the charter application had been submitted, much less approved, and they certainly had no way of knowing how much it's approval would impact their children.

When Riverbank opened in 2009, they were supposed to have 108 students in grades K-2.  A quick look at their annual report from the 2009-2010 school year shows that Riverbank only managed to enroll 53 students by September.  That's less than 50% of their maximum enrollment.  At years end only 73 students were enrolled, less than 68% of capacity.  

The charter regulations are pretty darn clear that a charter must meet 90% enrollement in order to open. This was the entire basis for the East Brunswick appeal of the opening of the Hatikvah International Academy Charter School in East Brunswick.
(i) The Commissioner may approve an application for a charter which shall be effective
when all necessary documents and information are received by the Commissioner. The charter school shall submit on or before the dates specified in the letter of approval the documentation not available at the time of the application submission including, but not limited to, copies of:
14. Evidence of enrollment of at least 90% of approved maximum enrollment, as verified by student registrations signed by parent/guardian(s) (emphasis mine)
In the Hatikvah case the judge ruled that a "modest dip" in enrollment was not sufficient reason to overturn the approval, but less than 50% enrollment can not by any means be considered a "modest dip."  So why was Riverbank allowed to open?  Because this is New Jersey, where the idea of charter school oversight is a cruel hoax.  

Fast forward three years and Riverbank has sort of filled it's seats, (currently they report 141 of 144 filled) but as we have seen with other charters time and time again, Riverbank has to pull students from districts other than the one it's actually approved to serve.  Riverbank students come from six districts in total, and still isn't filled to capacity.  

In March of 2012 Riverbank went public with their intention to expand and add grades 4 and 5.  
Debbie Pontoriero, Riverbank’s business administrator, said the school’s founders are confident that the department will renew the charter and approve the proposed expansion given the school’s high performance record on standardized tests as well as other evaluations.
“We scored 100 percent proficient (on the third-grade standardized test), so we’re not anticipating any issues with renewal,” Pontoriero said.
Parents consider the expansion approval a formality and have formed a nonprofit organization, Friends of the Riverbank Charter School, to begin raising money to help pay for building renovations, supplies, and other expansion-related costs.
The group has set a preliminary goal of $200,000, said Peter Marcello, a parent of two Riverbank students and a member of the group’s board.
“We’re brand-new, but we’ve already secured $10,000 in pledges,” Marcello said Tuesday about the fundraising effort. “We have a really dedicated group of people who want to make sure the school has what it needs to be successful.” (emphasis mine)
So many things bother me here.  So, so, so many things.

Let's look at what the 100% proficiency claim means for this particular charter.  The only grade they serve that takes the NJASK is 3rd grade.  How many kids were in 3rd grade last year?  A whopping 31 students. What district wouldn't give their eye teeth to only have to test 31 kids and get to brag about the results!!

A chart from the Riverbank renewal application raises further questions about the 100% proficiency.
Yup, you read that right.  According to the renewal application 22 white kids took the test.  Elsewhere in the application they claim all 31 3rd grade kids took it, but for some reason when the subgroups are broken out for both Math and Language Arts the same number appears.  22.  

And not only are no minority kids reported, there are no Special Ed, no LEP no Free/Reduced Lunch kids reported either. It's possible this is simply an error in how they are reporting their data, but even so, a look at the demographics of the two schools shows that Riverbank is not educating the same population as the district's elementary school.

Riverbank Charter
Roebling Elementary
African American         
Free/Reduced lunch    
Special Needs               
Limited English Proficient      

Not a big surprise to find that a charter school is segregating a district based on race, income and special needs.  But it's remarkably unfair and disingenuous for Ms. Pontoriero to claim that the 100% proficiency rate of a small, homogenous group of students means their renewal and requested expansion is a slam dunk. 
And not for nothing, does everyone else hear the sense of entitlement in these assertions that expansion is a foregone conclusion? The parents consider it a formality? The founders are confident and aren't anticipating any issues?  Really?  The hubris is mind blowing.

These over-confident charter parents have already created a nonprofit, both to secure donations and apply for part of the $14.5 million in federal funds that was awarded to New Jersey to "support the expansion and replication of high-quality charter schools."  On the Riverbank website there is a link to the Board of Trustees for the non-profit, and also a donation form so you can pitch in too!  

But strangely, there's no link anywhere on the website for the Board of Trustees of the charter itself. No list of Trustees, no meeting agendas and no meeting dates.  There is no link to their budget.  That just rubs me all kinds of wrong.  How can a charter school's website have all of the pertinent information about the Board of a non profit created to raise funds, but nothing about their own governing body?  No public notice regarding how they are spending the public dollars they receive (or who's spending them) but full notice of how they would like more money, thank you very much!

These dedicated parents say they are raising money to "make sure the school has what it needs to be successful."  Doesn't that seem to indicate a basic awareness that increased school funding equals success?  So you'd think they'd understand when a district advocated for their right to sufficient funds to provide a quality education to their students.

Apparently not, because these very same parents sure weren't too happy when Donna Ambrosius, the Superintendent of Florence Township Public Schools, held a "State of the Schools" meeting for the parents of her district to let them know her concerns regarding the negative financial impact the charter school's expansion would have on the 1,700 students in her district.  You can review her presentation here.  It is concise and thorough, and details the $1.3 million the district already loses to the charter, and the additional $400,000 per year that will be lost each of the next two years if the expansion is approved.

Charter parents and founders were outraged that Ambrosius laid out the bare facts.
Several of the meeting attendees were Riverbank staffers and families who objected to its reputation as a cost burden. 
Debbie Pontoriero, Riverbank’s business administrator, said the district’s presentation was “inflammatory” and did not show the whole financial picture. 
One parent said she felt like a “pariah” for sending her kids there.
The Florence Business Administrator got right to the heart of the matter, and didn't seem to bother much with the protestations of the charter folks.
District Business Administrator Bruce Benedetti blasted the funding model, saying, “The people who are promoting charter schools must not have ever worked in public school finance.” 
The charter school transfer money includes fixed energy, maintenance, transportation and custodial costs that are not recovered when the aid is sent to a charter school, Benedetti explained. 
He added that the statute creating charter schools was based on a theory that funds follow the student, which he said “couldn’t be further from the truth." 
“We do not lower the heat in a building (in the main district) because there are 25 less pupils. We do not stop cleaning classrooms because the class size goes down a couple of pupils,” he said. “These fiscal mathematics are flawed.”

In Commissioner Cerf's testimony before the Senate Education Committee on Monday he echoed Benedetti's remarks.  Cerf was questioned about Riverbank's expansion by Senator Diane Allen who represents Florence Township and is a member of the Education Committee.  Senator Allen asked Cerf whether he considers the financial impact on a district when he makes decisions about charter schools.  Here is what he said:

The first thing I look for is whether the proposed charter would meet an unmet need.  You can define an unmet need in lots of different ways.  You can say we don't have a school that focuses on the Italian Renaissance so I'm going to build a charter that focuses on the Italian Renaissance.  I'm being overly facetious, but for me unmet need means that there are children who are being underserved in terms of their basic educational rights. Right? So, if there is, and by the way you can find this in large communities and small communities, but if there are children that, I am much more sympathetic to a charter application if there are kids that are not being educated, and the charter applicant makes a credible case that it has a solution that will fill that need. 

I also look at the economic impact on a district and one of the, um, I'm hardly an economist, but I can tell you that the smaller the district's budget is, the greater the impact a charter school has and that's because certain costs are fixed, and certain costs are variable. You have to have a Superintendent's salary whether you have one school or 50 schools and therefore when you have a charter school in a smaller community it has a larger impact. (emphasis mine)
Riverbank has not made a case that students in Florence Township are being "underserved in terms of their basic educational rights" and has not demonstrated that they are providing a "solution" to fill any identified need in the district.

The financial impact on the district, contrary to what the charter parents and staff may claim, is undeniable however.  Parents have been feeling the effects of the charter for years.  How can they not when $1.3 million has been cut from their small budget?

Here is the list of what the district has already lost/cut/frozen to account for the loss of $1.3 million from their budget.

  • All staff took salary freeze 
  • Technology freeze 
  • Reduction of library/media specialist position 
  • Reduction of Child Study Team – part time/learning consultant
  • Reduction of guidance counselor (shared between 2 buildings)
  • Music Department down to one teacher at High School
  • Music Department down to 1.5 teachers at Middle School
  • All after-school programs from Middle School
  • Most after-school programs from High School
  • Safety Patrol from Elementary School
  • Home Economics Program from Middle School
  • TV/Film Program from High School
  • All Freshman sports from High Schools
  • Some JV sports from High School
  • All Middle School sports
  • 2.5 administrative personnel positions

If allowed to expand through 5th Grade, the charter will eventually subsume almost 10% of the district's $23 million budget. 10%! The people of Florence Township can not continue to be silent when the public funds allotted to their district are being looted.

Parents and residents of Florence Township have started a petition opposing Riverbank's expansion.  Please consider signing it.  Commissioner Cerf needs to hear loud and clear that he should not allow Riverbank to serve an additional 72 students at the expense of the 1,700 Florence Township students, especially when they have already lost so much.  If Cerf continues to ignore the financial impact of this charter on this small, successful district and approves Riverbank's expansion, you can bet he will have a real fight on his hands.


  1. Darcie,

    You nailed it again. This is shocking on so many levels. An entire school infrastructure and administration for 53 students. How can this be justified? It exposes that the Charter Regulations mean nothing to those that are supposed to be enforcing them. Other than the clear and devastating financial impact to the district, my concern is also with the segregation that is happening in the PUBLIC schools. This is exactly what our laws fought against for so many years. Florence needs to reach out and fight back hard. This travesty cannot continue and certainly not expand for more of the same.

  2. I am in a position where I can't publicly take sides in this situation, but this article is great. You couldn't have done a better job in stating the facts. I love my town and hate to see what is going on here.

  3. Fantastic insight; very well written. You nailed it! Why should the people of Florence take the burden of the charter school?

  4. Great article. Wonder why they only have 1% of Special Needs children? Fact is because they turn away children who may have special needs.

    1. Riverbank Charter School has not turned away those with special needs. In fact, they have embraced my child, helped to modify curriculum and provided special services to ensure that my student succeeds. All of the teachers are dedicated to make my child have a positive school experience and I am extremely grateful that this school exists.

  5. Thanks for this.
    I believe that the difference between the 22 kids reported on the ASK results and the 31 kids who took it is most likely the number that are from out of district- their scores go into the sending district's report.

    1. This could be the case.

      It could also be because in the State of NJ when reporting test score data, you only report "groups" larger than 20. In this case, since 22 Caucasian students took the test, their results were considered "reportable." The other students who took the test were considered "non-reportable" and therefore not reported on the form shown above because they made up a group smaller than 20. This is yet another reason why test score date should not be relied on so heavily, especially when trying to determine the cultural make-up of a school.... and especially in small schools!

  6. Yikes! It appears to me that a private-very private school is functioning as a 'public' school. If this post doesn't wake up the parents and citizens of Florence Township, then nothing will.

  7. The parents and citizens of Florence are definitely awake and spreading the word!

  8. What is also very frustrating is that when you ask parents why they send their children to the charter school, we often here: First, smaller class sizes. I believe they are maxed at 18, whereas the Roebling Elementary all average 18-21. Really not a big difference. Second, which bothers me to no end, they don't want their children to be in the “inclusion” classroom. That is just beyond offensive. So programs should be taken away from my children and my tax dollars should be spent, to provide a "private" education for parents who DONT want their children in the same classroom as kids with special needs? Makes me sick just typing this.

    1. My child is special needs...And is above his whole class including not classified kids!!!!! They want to de-classify and I dare people sterotype kid is better than the next..some may catch it slower then the rest but they eventually get it..who are these people and where are they coming from? Get off your high sink when you get off the "just by the book" eduaction..come to our school and see where you stand!

    2. By the way we teach outside of the books...there fore your child making straight a's in charter. book by book will make about c's in public. Good help you if your child brings their stats down they will ask you to remove your child because they cant offer what they need ..I.e. your bringing their stats down!!!!

    3. This claim is OUTRAGEOUS!! I am a Charter School parent. I have NEVER EVER heard any one say that they have chosen the Charter School because they do not want their student in an inclusion class.
      Smaller class sizes, yes, many of us originally started looking at the Charter School because of the class sizes at Roebling School 5 years ago. Since the population has split K-3 and some students have moved over to the Charter School, the class size has ended up working out successfully for all of us. The Charter School class size AND the Public School class sizes have almost evened out, benefitting ALL of our students.
      But not being in an inclusion class? I have never heard those words muttered out of any mouths.... and thank goodness because I would have given them an earful!

  9. You make a fantastic point about inclusion classes. I, at first, was frustrated when my child, year after year, was in an inclusion class. When looked at more closely, these non-inclusion children in an inclusion class got the best of both worlds. They were in a diverse class and learned valuable life lessons. Second, the inclusion children were pulled out of the classroom for most of the day for instruction and that left the student teacher ratio between 10-14 to 1 teacher. Want more proof that inclusion classes are valuable, my child is now in high school enrolled and succeeding in ALL honors classes. Shame on you seeking public school money for your so-called private school education. If you want your child to have a private school education, pay for it!

  10. Our world is made up of diverse people. Why shouldn't the classroom reflect this?

  11. Why does Florence pay $1.3 million to a charter school and nearby Hamilton pays a charter school of similar size $346,355?

  12. This article is terrific!! The Charter School in Florence should have NEVER been open!! Florence Twp Board of Ed and the Florence Twp. people can NOT afford this School!!
    Why should 1700 children in Florence suffer for 150 in the Charter School. Florence Twp. residents should write Senator Allen, Congressman Conaway and Bishop David O'Connell to let them know there is no money for this School, the School is segretating our Twp. Not doing right for our town!

  13. If you want a private school education for your children, PAY FOR IT! Riverbank is essentially a private school, masquerading as a "public" charter school. How is word getting out the community regarding their "open" enrollment? I have never seen a notice in newspaper and friends with children in local pre-schools have not been given information. Drive by the school, and there is nothing out-front regarding enrollment. Clearly, they are getting word out to the families they want to give notice to. Something is just not right with this. No wonder their student body doesnt represent Florence Township in terms of race, income or ability! This clearly shows the lack of need for this charter school in Florence. Opening its doors with less than 50% enrollment and still not filled to capacity, despite having to pull students from 6 other districts. Talk to Charter Parents and they will tell you "I want what’s best for MY Child". Well, WE want what’s best for ALL our children". Big difference. The aides that will likely lose their jobs if the expansion is approved, mostly live in our township, have worked in our schools for 20 or more years and refer to their students as "their children". Despite this, they are not worried about losing their jobs as much as they are worried about what will be taken away from the students in our district. Enough is Enough!

  14. Interesting read regarding qsac scores and Florence Township....

  15. wrong posted document:

    Page 4-5 is a great read...

  16. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.