The proposed expansion of the Riverbank Charter School (“the charter” herein) in Florence Township, New Jersey will have a negative impact on the schools, students and communities served by the Florence Township School District (“the district”). The charter currently enrolls students in grades K-3 and is seeking to expand by adding grade 4 in 2013-2014 and grade 5 in 2014-2015.
The New Jersey Commissioner of Education approved the charter in 2008 without any input whatsoever from local taxpayers. The charter opened in 2009, and now, just 4 years later, as part of their renewal process, they have asked the New Jersey Department of Education to expand. Once again, we will have no control over this decision, yet it is our tax dollars that will be significantly impacted.
Assembly bill 1877, which passed the Assembly in March 2012, would allow voters in a district to vote on not only the approval of a charter school, but also on the expansion of an existing charter. We feel strongly that the charter should not be able to expand its enrollment by 50% without the approval of the residents of the district.
The district is required by state law to pay the charter approximately $1.3 million a year. If the charter expands against the wishes of the district, we will nonetheless be required to set aside an additional $700,000 each year. Due to the state-mandated 2% budget cap, we cannot expect to recover this money for our public schools through new tax assessments.
We question the diversion of these funds from our district, especially at a time when budgets are tight and districts are held to the state-mandated budget cap. We are a small, suburban school district with approximately 1700 students who will lose additional services and programs for the benefit of a handful of students. Since the charter opened, some of the programs and services that were eliminated or reduced include:
• 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
Additionally, we are outraged by the segregative effect the charter school has on our district and question how its demographics can represent the district as a whole so poorly. Only 1% of the charter’s students have an IEP compared to 15% in the district, and the charter has only about half the percentage of African American and low-income students as compared to our district’s elementary school.
Florence Township is not the only district that will be impacted by the expansion of the charter. Mansfield, Burlington, Willingboro, Medford and Mount Holly currently have students enrolled, and stand to lose additional funds as well.
Florence Township residents are overwhelmingly opposed to the expansion of the charter and will continue to fight to maintain the public schools that are the cornerstone of our community. We will not stand by and watch while the educational opportunities of 1700 students are further limited in order to provide a boutique education to a small fraction of our population.
I write to you today regarding the expansion of the Riverbank Charter School of Excellence (the “charter") located in Florence Township, New Jersey.
The charter opened in 2009 as a grade K-3 school and now is seeking to expand to include grades 4 and 5. We are a small, suburban school district with approximately 1700 students. Our school district is not a failing school district. In fact, in accordance with the Annual Measured Objective established by the NJDOE, our School District has met their identified target.
On January 28, 2013, before the Senate Education Committee, Department of Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf indicated 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 cuts are variable.” Commissioner Cerf further indicated, “When you have a charter school in a smaller community, it has a larger impact.”
Since the charter opened in 2009, the magnitude of cuts to programs and services has indeed been overwhelming to our small district. Currently, we are forced to pay the charter over $1.3 million a year for approximately 120 students, and if the charter is allowed to expand, the district will be forced to set aside an additional $700,000 each year for approximately 70 more students.
We will not be able to recover this lost revenue through additional tax assessments because this amount exceeds the state-mandated 2% budget cap. If the charter’s expansion is approved, our 1700 school children would unfairly have to experience further loss in services and programs, which are essential to their education.
Additionally, the charter is segregating our school district by race, income and special needs. Only 1% of the charter’s students have an IEP compared to 15% in the district, and the charter has only about half the percentage of African American and low-income students as compared to our district’s elementary school.
As a taxpayer and concerned citizen, I believe the expansion does not serve and is not in the best interest of the community, families and children of Florence Township and the surrounding communities. I respectfully request that the expansion of the charter be denied.