Rejected 3 Times, School May Still Open Soon, and With a Grant, Too
The Feds come off very badly in this case. As Michael Winerip asks, "How could federal oversight be so lax?" And then, in the next paragraph he answers the question.
Some readers went ballistic. I'm posting one of the calm ones.
Reader Comment: A small town, Highland Park has always prided itself on its excellent school system. Its citizens have paid high taxes to keep it that way. The high school has hired a teacher of Hebrew and is providing a kosher food option for those students who would require it.
The creation of yet another charter school that will drain more money away from the public school system of this small town is simply wrong and a misuse of what a charter was meant to be. These alternative schools were created to give parents an option in contrast with underperforming public schools.
Unfortunately, the lack of oversight of the process of creating a charter is allowing and has allowed people to game the system and create their own specialty schools in New Jersey. Sadly, in this case, the students in the public schools and the citizens of Highland Park are the ones that will pay.
By Michael Winerip
In the last couple of years, Sharon Akman, a real estate agent, applied to the state of New Jersey three times to open a new charter school in the Highland Park area, to be called Tikun Olam Hebrew Language Charter High School.
Each time, she was rejected.
Then on Oct. 6, one week after the state's most recent rejection, the United States Education Department announced that it had approved a $600,000 grant to finance Ms. Akman's proposed charter.
It would have taken federal officials just a few phone calls to determine that there were many good reasons for the state to have rejected Ms. Akman's applications.
For one thing, they have been full of misrepresentations.
Ms. Akman, who declined to comment for this column, writes that the charter school would be located in St. Mary of Mount Virgin Church in New Brunswick, even though the bishop of the Diocese of Metuchen, Paul G. Bootkoski, has repeatedly said that the building is not available.
Ms. Akman's documents list community supporters of the school, including Jun Choi, a former mayor of Edison, and the directors of the Zimmerli Art Museum in New Brunswick, who have written in e-mails made public that they are not supporters.
The application says there is a need for a Hebrew charter in the Highland Park-Edison-New Brunswick area, even though there are many Jewish private schools close by and, as Ms. Akman has told state reviewers, no community survey has been done.
The application says that the families served by the New Brunswick schools, which are predominantly black and Hispanic, support the Hebrew charter, even though school leaders and the local N.A.A.C.P. chapter do not.
Since March 2010, community volunteers from Highland Park, Edison and New Brunswick have been battling to stop the school from opening, arguing that it would drain resources from traditional public schools in order to provide a free Jewish education that should be the responsibility of private schools.
For each child who leaves a district to attend a charter, the charter receives 90 percent of the district's per-pupil spending allotment. In modest-size communities like Highland Park, with a district of 1,500 students, that can take a substantial bite out of a school budget.
What has been so frustrating to opponents is that despite repeated distortions in the Tikun Olam applications, the charter still may open in September.
How could federal oversight be so lax?
Part of the answer is that charter schools are a top priority for the Obama administration, making federal officials predisposed to support them.
And part of the answer, as Justin Hamilton, an Education Department spokesman, explained in an e-mail, is that federal officials see their oversight role as limited. The department hires private consultants to rate the quality of a charter applicant, but those consultants "cannot use information not included in the grant application," he said.
In other words, if Ms. Akman writes that Assemblyman Peter J. Barnes III supports the charter, the federal consultants are not permitted to interview Mr. Barnes, who would have been happy to tell them that he does not.
This prohibition against using outside information is intended to ensure that no special measures are taken to either favor or hinder an applicant, although what it really invites is fiction writing.
Mr. Hamilton points out that the federal grant does not take effect unless the state approves Ms. Akman's application. The federal role, he said, is to "operate as a funding source for applicants proposing to open high-quality start-up charter schools," although it is hard to imagine why an applicant would propose a low-quality charter school.
An applicant with a $600,000 pledge in her pocket may be seen in a new light by state officials. In mid-October, Ms. Akman wrote to the state's acting education commissioner, Christopher D. Cerf, requesting assistance in winning approval for her fourth application. "We were just granted a substantial federal charter school grant," she wrote him, and would "love to have a meeting to better strategize and prepare for our reapplication."
How Mr. Cerf responded is not known. E-mails between Ms. Akman and Mr. Cerf's office were released after a request under the state's Open Public Records Act. While Ms. Akman's string of e-mails was made public, responses from Mr. Cerf's office were redacted.
What we do know is that in mid-October Ms. Akman made her fourth try, as 1 of 42 applicants statewide.
And in December, the state made its first cuts, leaving 17 applicants -- including Tikun Olam.
Next week state officials are to announce which are approved. If Tikun Olam is successful, the school plans to open in September with 100 students.
Ms. Akman has repeatedly refused to talk to reporters. She did not respond to a dozen e-mails and voice mail messages left at the real estate office where she works, Century 21 J. J. Laufer in Highland Park. When I called the personal cellphone number she listed on the state application, a woman answered. "Who's calling?" she asked, and when I explained that I was a reporter, she said, "I'll tell them you called, thank you," and hung up.
While I have independently confirmed the facts in this column, a lot of the distortions were first dug up by Darcie Cimarusti, an opponent of the charter school. She is an interior designer and educator with four children in Highland Park schools who is now a stay-at-home mom, and she has devoted an extraordinary amount of her time to stopping the charter.
"Since May this has become my full-time job," she said. "Some weeks, far more than 40 hours a week." She has been joined by several dozen community volunteers.
All over the state, volunteers, mainly women, have been working to keep charter schools out. Mostly they're from prosperous suburbs with high-quality public schools: Livingston, Millburn-Short Hills, Maplewood, Teaneck, Cherry Hill.
Even so, it is an uphill battle against an education establishment that includes Democrats (President Obama) and Republicans (Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey) with strong financial backing (the Gates, Broad and Walton foundations).
A spokesman for the state's Education Department, Justin Barra, said in an e-mail that in the next review round for charter applications, representatives of Tikun Olam would be brought in for "an intensive in-person interview." As for possible misrepresentations, he said: "Several individuals in the public comment process have raised concerns about potential inaccurate statements in the application. We will investigate these concerns."
In New Jersey, there is no limit to the number of times a group can modify its application and reapply for a charter, and Tikun Olam does not hold the record. "We do have applicants that have submitted more than four times," Mr. Barra said.
Mr. Hamilton, the federal spokesman, said that if the Education Department "becomes aware of material factual misrepresentations," it could terminate the grant.
An investigation would not require much digging. The list of public officials who supposedly support the Tikun Olam charter -- but in interviews have said they really do not -- is in the first paragraph on Page 18 of the federal application.
Right after that, in Paragraph 2, the charter supporters provide some of the translations of the Hebrew words "tikun olam," including "perfecting the world."
New York Times