Livingston Township Council Discusses Charter Schools; Hear Presentation from Superintendent Brad Draeger

U.S. Representative Bill Pascarell, right, announces that the Livingston Fire Department has received a federal grant of $188,000 to buy new turn-out gear and breathing apparatuses. He is joined by, from left, Fire Chief Christopher Mullin, Assistant Fire Chief Kevin Francione and Mayor Rudy Fernandez, Jr.

LIVINGSTON, NJ - Over the course of Tuesday evening, members of the Livingston Township Council expressed their individual views on charter schools but stopped short of taking a position as a whole.

The governing body joined the municipality’s Board of Education for a special “5 on 5” session before its regularly scheduled meeting. At the early session, Council members for the most part listened to a presentation from Schools Superintendent Brad Draeger on the status of two charter schools that have applied to operate in the area and heard comments—mostly negative—from about a dozen residents.

The only member of the Council to express himself in that setting was Deputy Mayor Stephen Santola. When the topic of charter schools came up during the regular session, however, three other Council members gave their views.

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About 70 people attended the joint session, held in the high school auditorium. Leslie Winograd, school board president, announced that another public forum will be held next week.

In his presentation, Dr. Draeger said charter schools, which began in New Jersey in 1994-95, were originally intended for parents in districts that were underperforming and were not good choices for their children.

This year, according to the superintendent, the state’s Department of Education has received two applications to establish Mandarin immersion charter schools in the area. One would be in Livingston and the other would be in South Orange.

The applications were submitted by March 31, and the board of education has 60 days to comment on them, Draeger said. The Department of Education must decide by Sept. 30 if it will grant the charters.

Classes would begin in fall of 2012, and initially 55 children would attend the schools, according to the superintendent. The district would be required to pay 90 percent of the per pupil cost of $13,712 to any student attending a charter school. Draeger said initial projections are that the district’s obligation would be $682,000.

That obligation could result in a higher tax burden or more budget cuts, he indicated.

Assemblywoman Mila Jasey, who also attended the session, noted that the chairman of the state Assembly’s Education Committee has proposed legislation that would require voter approval for the issuance of charter school licenses. Two other bills under consideration deal with authorizing and holding charter schools accountable.

“After 16 years, there’s been absolutely no review or analysis of where we’ve been, how are we doing, are they fulfilling the mission,” Jacey added. “At the time the legislation was written, no districts were self-funding…. We’re at a point where while many of us might say this is a great idea, we’d love to have this opportunity for our children, we simply can’t afford it.”

Members of the board and the public then offered their opinions on charter schools.

Board member Barry Funt said, “If this were taxpayer neutral, I think we would be looking at it differently.”

Residents who spoke questioned whether charter schools are necessary, pointed to the divisiveness the schools might cause, and expressed concern about their effect on the quality of education in the public schools and home values. Several speakers suggested contacting their state legislators and signing petitions.

Toward the end of the session, Council member Santola praised district officials, involved parents and senior residents who have supported the schools

“Party politics don’t play a role,” he said. “You guys have done an outstanding job.”

He then added, “I’m against any charter schools that we don’t all vote on.”

During the regularly scheduled meeting, resident Anita Gordon pressed the Council to take a position against charter schools.

Council member Gary Schneiderman responded, “I don’t think we all agree as a body.”

Council member Michael Rieber said, “I think they know in Trenton how we feel.”

Mayor Rudy Fernandez, Jr., said, “Charter schools serve a purpose, but I wouldn’t be in favor of them unless the taxpayers want it.”

He noted that he was speaking for himself, adding, “I don’t know whether we’ll get a consensus.”

During its regularly scheduled meeting, the Council passed four ordinances without discussion. One expands the permitted business uses in the professional office districts, and another updates the municipality’s affordable housing regulations.

The third ordinance that was passed alters development fees the township charges, and the fourth, a bond ordinance, provides for the payment of refunds in the amount of $1.4 million to property owners who made successful tax appeals.

The governing body also introduced three ordinances that will be heard at the next meeting on June 6. The first establishes new setback requirements for properties along Eisenhower Parkway and Mount Pleasant Avenue. The second and third ordinances establish attendance policies for the township council and boards and committees.

Those policies are part of a plan to introduce best practices into local government, and were not initiated because of any particular problem, according to the mayor.


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