Residents from Maplewood, South Orange, Montclair, Millburn and West Orange piled into the main hall at the Maplewood Community Center on Friday evening to demand reform to charter school approval and control in New Jersey.
The rally was centered on the application of the Hua Mei Charter School, a Mandarin-immersion school proposed to be located in Maplewood that would draw from the South Orange-Maplewood School District and West Orange School District.
“We have never ever had before the idea that a charter school would be placed in a well-performing school district,” New Jersey State Senator Richard Codey told reporters following the rally. “It was always understood it was only for failing districts.... All of a sudden (New Jersey Governor Chris) Christie comes in, these 'boutique' charter schools pop up.”
Codey went on to say that a charter school should “reflect the diversity, educationally and every other way, of that school system.” He, along with 27th District Assemblyman John McKeon and Assemblywoman Mila Jasey are sponsors of a measure (S-2243/A-3852) advancing through the New Jersey Legislature, aimed at giving local voters control of the charter school application process, including the establishment or expansion of a school.
“I’d like to see our towns have a vote,” McKeon said prior to the rally. “We vote for our board members and we vote for the (school) budget, the only budget voted on by the public. It seems to me just counterintuitive that we wouldn’t have to vote for something so important and profound as to take money away from our public schools to go to charter schools.
Residents applauded their elected officials and held signs opposing the Hua Mei charter school.
"I'm not opposed to this school," said Millburn resident Jill Kimelman. "I'm opposed to charters being established without local vote. We have to protect what we've already built. We have to make sure we can afford it." Kimelman noted that there are charters that are funded by private foundations that do not draw funding from public coffers.
Maplewood Deputy Mayor Kathy Leventhal voiced her strong opposition to Hua Mei and other charters for both financial and educational reasons.
"For both the town's budget and the school district's budget, it has been very difficult to balance the needs of education or service priorities with the available funds within the 2% cap. To have funding leave diminishes what we can provide to our students."
Outside the rally, Adam Kraemer of West Orange was the sole charter supporter. He stood near the entrance to the community center handing out fliers and speaking to the press.
"I like the public schools in West Orange," said Kraemer, a Columbia High School graduate (CHS '84) and native of Maplewood. Kraemer said he has three children in third grade in West Orange public schools. But despite his positive experience with public school education, Kraemer said, "There are still areas in need of improvement, and healthy competition could move us from good districts to great districts and give students unique educational opportunities."
Cynthia Cumming of West Orange felt differently.
"If this charter school is passed, this is just the start of a series of people who want to fund their private schools with public school funding." Cumming said that the West Orange School District budget had lost $9 million in state aid in the past two years and that the loss of another $324,000 (the projected cost of Hua Mei to the district in its first year) was unsustainable. "And that's just to start! What people are not understanding is that if the money stays in the school district, we can do more with it." Cumming also cited the added cost of busing the charter school students out of district.
A decision on the Hua Mei Charter by N.J. State Acting Commissioner of Education Christopher Cerf is expected by Jan. 17.