The needler in the haystack.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Plainfield charter school must close

Work was stopped at the school's site for several months
in 2010 over the proper remediation of asbestos in the building.

One of Plainfield's four remaining charter schools must close at the end of this academic year.

Central Jersey Arts Charter School (CJACS), which has been on probation since January 2012 for fiscal and organizational reasons, has been ordered to close its doors on June 30. (I noted in a 2010 post -- see here -- that the school was cited for deficiencies in language arts and math.) The school serves grades K-8 in its building at 1225 South Avenue (the former ARC building, across from the Burger King). You can view its website here.

The news came in an update on charter school news posted on NJ Spotlight (see here) on Monday. In a four-page letter (see here), David Hespe, the NJ Commissioner of Education, outlines the reasons for non-renewal of the school's charter.

The letter reviews CJACS's performance in student achievement -- which it finds "remained dismal" -- as well as a thorough financial assessment and the results of on-site visits.

The state's review shows academic deficiencies.
(Click on image to enlarge; see state's full letter here.)

What is surprising to me is that after three years of being on probation, which should warn the school's leadership of serious consequences, the state's assessment shows academic performance had actually declined.

Not only that, the site visits revealed that the school's leadership does not have "a comprehensive curriculum across all grades and subjects", students were not "engaged by rigorous instruction" and a "lack of clear plans in place to address issues [at hand]".

The state's conclusion: "there is a lack of evidence that the school is providing its students with a quality education or that it has the capacity to dramatically improve student achievement in the future".

For those who are not familiar, charter schools in New Jersey are public schools chartered by the state, funded from a portion of the local school district's resources, and governed by a board independent of the elected Board of Education. The argument has always run that they are to be centers of educational innovation and excellence that will enable their students to surpass performance levels of students in the host district's public schools.

I found the state's review of CJACS's fiscal situation disturbing. The school has been troubled with incomplete records, weak internal controls and failure to receive an Unqualified Opinion from its auditor for several years.

The 2014 financials noted there "can be no assurance [the school] will be able to generate sufficient cash flow to achieve or sustain operations in the future".

All of the above only caps a troubled history that reaches back nearly to the school's beginning in 2006.

Originally located on the upper floors of 7-9 Watchung Avenue (above Assemblyman Jerry Green's old office), the school started in space that had been the original home of the Queen City Academy Charter School.

By 2010, the school was planning to move and expand and had hired a local architect to draw up plans for the renovation of the former ARC building on South Avenue as the school's new home (see my posts here, and here).

Then something funny happened on the way to completing this project.

Erick Torain, a mysterious figure who seems to have been an agent of then-executive director of the Union County Improvement Authority, Charlotte DeFilippo, became involved in the project.

Suddenly, the CJACS board was replaced with a new non-profit board known as the "Friends of CJACS" handpicked by Torain, and this board sought bonding from the UCIA to purchase and renovate the South Avenue property. (The architect, who had testified before the Planning Board on the school's behalf up to this point, was suddenly sidelined. Payment for his services was denied until he finally sued and the matter was settled out of court.)

This was not the first time that the mysterious Mr. Torain had "facilitated" a UCIA bond issue in Plainfield.

In 2007, Torain was active in securing the $7 million bond issue -- it started out at $5.5 million; the increase was never explained -- for the construction of BUF's new early childhood learning center at Grant Avenue and West 6th Street. (A most unusual circumstance was that permission was granted for the project even though the site plan did not allow for on-site parking for employees.)

The CountyWatchers blog has a file of Torain's correspondence concerning the BUF bond issue online here. It is interesting to see the firms represented in the emails list (is DeFilippo's email address?).

I wrote about that project twice (see here, and here) noting that Mayor Robinson-Briggs had pledged the city's support (though the Council was left in the dark) and that in the likelihood of a default by BUF on the bonds, the County's position was that the city would "in all probability" be on the hook.

Mr. Torain then turned up again in July, 2013, to offer his assistance in the matter of buying and restoring the Lampkin House, an historic property on Terrill Road (see my post here). The proposal for forming a nonprofit to purchase, stabilize and restore the house looked like it could be destined for the same UCIA treatment -- except that there was no nonprofit ever formed nor a revenue stream posited. Mr. Torain has not been heard of since.

Aside from the difficulties facing the CJACS students and their families with scrambling for seats for the fall 2015 term, I am concerned about what happens about the outstanding bonds if/when the school closes.

Though CJACS technically has the right to appeal the state's closure decision, prospects of an override by the courts look exceedingly dim to this humble observer.

Which then leaves the question: Who is on the hook for the bonds on the South Avenue school property?

  -- Dan Damon [follow]

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Anonymous said...

This will surely improve traffic.

Anonymous said...

Well written gist of CJACS's closing. Just one correction (not that it matters for the school but rather to ensure accuracy).

CJACS had it's original board disbanded by the DOE and nothing to do with the establishment of a not-for-profit "Friends of CJACS" entity with its own board of trustees. Many schools, traditional and otherwise, have such entities (mostly called "Educational Associations" to assist in fund-raising and school support.

CJAC's own Board of Trustees was ordered to disband by the DOE charter office due to mismanagement and other irregularities, at which time the current management company - Renaissance School Services (RSS)- was approved to "run" the school.

Originally CJAC's was founded by a mother / daughter team. Cora Coney was president of the Board. Her daughter, Shamida Coney was a secretary and an "arts coordinator" - a title approved by the Board (interesting??). Though she did not possess any teaching or school administrator credentials. Shamida's salary was greater than all teaching staff members.

RSS's management contract was approved by the DOE during the time Mr. Cerf was NJ Commissioner of Education. There is an interesting point here that may bear investigating further by a reporter.

RSS rose from the ashes of another charter management company called Edison, which went defunct years ago. Mr. Cerf was one of the chief staff members of that defunct company. What was the relationship between Mr. Cerf and the new RSS? Anyone wish to investigate further?

This is just the tip of an iceberg. However, the iceberg has finally been tipped over and is dissolving - and will disappear on June 30. Unfortunate for those who already wasted their educational lives here. Fortunate for everyone else who will never get that chance to fail.