CAMDEN, NJ — Four months after residents said they were blindsided by the proposed expansion of a charter school in their neighborhood — which led the City Council to table an ordinance — Cramer Hill Residents Association president Mary Cortes told TAPinto Camden that she’s more optimistic about the project. 

When proposed, the ordinance authorized the use of the city's eminent domain powers to acquire land on behalf of Camden’s Promise — which operates four schools in East Camden serving students from pre-K through 12th grade. 

The ordinance was tabled partly due to residents claiming they were not notified over the proposal — namely to obtain a group of properties across from the school’s 879 Beideman Ave. main campus. At that point the charter school network had, over the years, secured all but four lots of the site proposed for the new school facilities.

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A month later, the ordinance was passed upon reintroduction and in the months soon after representatives of the school continued to keep residents abreast of the project — located a block where Lois and Hayes avenues meet in the Beideman neighborhood.

“Yes, I feel better about what’s planned but it’s something I and others will be keeping an eye on,” said Cortes, a longtime advocate who also heads the Camden United Inc. “When it was first proposed, the fear had to do with the network bringing the high school over here and sooner or later adding more and more…[ostensibly] kicking people out of the area for an educational campus.”

Cortes said during a meeting following the tabling and another recently on Jan. 31, it has been clarified to residents that the neighborhood proposal — which impacts the surrounding community covering Cramer Hill and Ablett Village as well — is solely linked to the addition of a pre-K school. 

Although her fears have been quelled, she said a list of concerns laid out to the network during the council meeting last fall remain valid. 

Among them, that the charter-style school will not provide tax revenue to Camden, could bankrupt seven daycare businesses in the area, and worsen traffic issues in an already-beset part of the city.

Cortes said she's also afraid that parents of the students enrolled in the new early childhood center may not respect the community and parking rules as they are coming from other municipalities.

Another endeavor and eminent domain

Joe Conway, co-founder of Camden's Promise Charter School, said Thursday that the school is working to meet demand for not only pre-K students at its Beideman campus but the siblings of students already attending the school.

He also said the network’s Katz-Dalsey Academy Charter School — Rosedale will have upcoming improvements.

Planners submitted an amended preliminary and final site plan for the Katz Academy Charter School, located Pleasant Street, last week during the city’s Planning Board meeting.

It is a new project by no means as it was approved five years ago, Conway said.

The latest iteration splits the project’s second phase into two phases of its own — the first comprising the addition of fencing, sidewalks, lighting without the addition of an auditorium as initially proposed.

Moreover, Conway said the Camden Promise pre-K facility, “has a long lead.”

“It wouldn’t be finished until approximately 2022 or so, depending on planning,” he said. “We still expect to go through the planning process and review construction figures over the next year before shovels go into the ground.”

He said the network has not attained architectural, design or construction costs yet.

Despite residents being more in line with the project, Cortes held firm on her stance when it comes to the use of eminent domain. 

The practice refers to using the power of a governing body to take a private property through just compensation and convert it for public use.

“The fact is, it's a charter school and has no connection to the Camden Board of Education and therefore it is not for the public,” said Cortes. “Eminent domain only deals with public-use which is why I’m disappointed that the city would take that step.”

“As for the school [in the Beideman neighborhood], I understand it is only for pre-K but for me it may always feel like a slippery slope.”

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