(File photo of the school district’s office at 90 Park Ave. from Google Maps.)

When the Hamilton Township School District received an application for the proposed Theresa M. Fredericks STEAM Academy Charter School last year, it was filed away in a drawer. School board members never knew the New Jersey Department of Education was deciding whether or not a new school would open in Hamilton, let alone that the sitting board president, Tony Celentano, belonged to the group that submitted the application, a potential conflict of interest.

The school district had no formal procedure for handling charter school applications. While the proposed charter school was denied by the Department of Education last fall for failing to meet the minimum requirements of a qualified applicant, the Hamilton school board is now using this as an opportunity to create a new charter school policy that outlines a clear procedure for how the district handles applications.

When deciding whether or not to approve a charter school application, the Department of Education asks the home district for their recommendation. With no official policy on what to do with the applications, Hamilton district staff simply filed the applications away without alerting members of the school board. Proponents of the district’s new charter school policy say that the district essentially was ignoring paperwork that could potentially have a profound impact on both the district and its taxpayers. It behooves the district, they said, to weigh in officially on the charter school applications that come to the district.

A majority of the Board of Education felt similarly, and the new policy passed, 5-3, at the March 20 school board meeting. Celentano, Michelle Episcopo and board vice president Sue Lombardo voted against it. The policy states that all board members must receive a copy of the application and it must be discussed at a regular Board of Education meeting. It also states that a member of the school board cannot simultaneously sit on the charter school’s founding team.

“This is a unique policy in the sense that it is not adopted, to my knowledge, anywhere else in the state,” school board member Christopher Scales said.

As Celentano was serving as president of the school board in 2015 and 2016, his name appeared on two Hamilton charter school applications—the Theresa M. Fredericks STEAM Academy Charter School application that was denied by the state last fall and another application that was rejected in June 2015. Celentano, who said he is an advocate for STEM and STEAM schools, helped to open Pace Charter School of Hamilton in 1999 with David Henderson, a Hamilton resident who worked on the same STEAM academy applications as Celentano. STEM and STEAM are acronyms standing for the subject areas of emphasis: science, technology, engineering, math and arts.

Celentano said he served as an advisor to the STEAM Academy Charter School, helping the founding team pick a location and answering questions they had about opening a charter in Hamilton.

Despite Celentano’s involvement in the charter school, many district officials—including school board members—first learned about the Theresa M. Fredericks STEAM Academy Charter School after reading a Trentonian article earlier this year about the application being denied by the state.

School board member Susan Ferrara said she felt blindsided by the news.

“Two charter school applications came in—one in 2015 and one in 2016—and both times the board member involved was president of the board,” she said. “And as president of the board, that person helps to make up the agenda. This policy really stems from being blindsided.”

When asked why he didn’t inform other board members of the charter school application, Celentano said he thought they already knew.

“The policy should be that whenever a charter school application comes into any municipality, that the administration should know about it,” he said. “Apparently, I found out that nobody told anybody, they filed it away.”

In January, Ferrara asked the board to enact a policy outlining how the district handles charter applications, and Scales, who is chair of the policy committee, took the lead.

“Initially upon reading [the Trentonian story] I was deeply concerned with what was in the article,” Scales said. “If that application were to have been approved, there would be potential operational and budgetary impacts on the school district.”

‘‘The board has a chance to review those applications, to weigh in on them and share that information with the public. It just makes sense.’

In additional to receiving state and federal funds, charter schools receive a portion of their funding from the public school district’s budget. The Hamilton school district currently spends just over $1.6 million to send 134 district students to six charter schools—Pace Charter School of Hamilton, The Village Charter School, Paul Robeson Charter School for the Humanities, Foundation Academy, International Academy of Trenton and Trenton Stem-to-Civics. Board President Pamela Kelly said that’s an average of $12,454 per student.

“These costs to the district are much greater than that of students attending our county vocational technical programs,” Kelly said, adding that the district currently pays $1,250 per part-time vocational student and $7,500 per full-time student.

Scales said one of the main goals of the policy, which was first introduced at the Feb. 27 meeting, was to make the charter school application process more transparent for both the board and the community.

“Unfortunately, for whatever reason, the applications were coming into the district and put in a drawer because that’s how people were instructed to deal with them,” Ferrara said. “We as a board have a chance to review those applications, we have a chance to weigh in on them and we have a chance to share that information with the public, so wouldn’t we do that? It just makes sense.”

Ferrara said the policy reinforces New Jersey law about what the board can do with regards to charter schools, while putting the board on notice that this is their responsibility to review the application in a public forum.

According to the new policy, the superintendent must provide a copy of the charter school application to all Board of Education members, and a discussion item must be added on the next regular school board meeting. The board will then use the meeting time to discuss the application and vote upon a recommendation to the state Commission of Education within 60 days of receiving the application.

While the state controls which charter schools open, they do take into account the school district’s recommendations. In addition to sending in a recommendation to the state, a school board can also appeal the state’s decision in court, which was also outlined in Hamilton’s new policy.

“Transparency is crucial,” Scales said. “Informing the community of what is going on—in addition to the board and administration—is essential, and so by making things more open and having a discussion about things, it’s a step in the right direction.”

Hamilton’s new policy also states that any school board members who are also on a charter school’s founding team must disclose it to the board in writing and recuse themselves from the discussion and vote. In addition, if any board members accept an appointment to serve as trustee of a charter school that enrolls Hamilton students, then they must resign from the Board of Education.

New Jersey law is silent on whether or not a school board member can also be involved with new charter school efforts. But Scales said that being a board member for a school district and trustee for charter school in the same district would create a conflict of interest.

Ferrara agreed, saying that there are things the school board discusses in executive sessions that can’t be discussed in public. The school board member who tries to open a charter would have access to information—different projects, property evaluations—that could be used to help apply for the charter school.

“You can’t serve two schools and be fair to both,” Ferrara said. “At the end of the day, by starting a charter you’re taking money out of the district. I personally don’t think it’s appropriate to do both at once.”

Only two school board members voted against the policy at the Feb. 27 meeting: Lombardo and Celentano. At the meeting, Lombardo said she was uncomfortable with the reading of the policy, but she did not respond to further questions about why she voted against it.

During the second and final reading of the policy at the March 20 meeting, Lombardo and Celentano once again voted against the policy, this time joined by Michelle Episcopo. However, the policy passed with the support of Ferrara, Scales, Richard Kanka, Jessica Young and board president Pamela Kelly. Jennifer Kraemer was absent.

‘There was no reason for them to be aware. I had nothing to do with crafting the application.’

Celentano said the policy is just a grandstanding by the board members who wanted to pass it, and because the policy is already law in the state of New Jersey, he said it’s unnecessary.

However, Scales said that this policy will make sure that information no longer slips through the cracks, and it will make it so no board member can prevent information from surfacing.
Celentano added that he is disappointed in the Board of Education as whole for not calling him to discuss what was written about him, and they didn’t need to know his name appeared on the application.

“There was no reason for them to be aware,” he said. “I had nothing to do with crafting the application. I had nothing to do with meetings. A friend of mine who was over there, they said ‘Can you give us a hand with this?’ because I was involved with Pace Charter School.”

The policy was supported by people in attendance at the Feb. 27 meeting. After Scales read the policy, people broke out in a round of applause. David Perry, president of the Hamilton Township Education Association, also said he was in favor the new charter school policy.

Kelly said the school district’s budget is already tight, and if the number of students attending charter schools increases, then they would take additional district funds with them.

The deadline to submit phase one applications for proposed charter schools is March 31, which was another reason some school board members wanted to adopt the policy before the end of the month.

Gov. Chris Christie is a strong charter school advocate, as is Rep. Chris Smith. Newly appointed federal Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has also been vocal about charter schools and her hope for their proliferation. Her appointment coincides with a growing number of students being enrolled in charter schools. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, overall charter school enrollment in America increased from 800,000 to 2.5 million from 2004 to 2014. During that same 10-year period, the number of public school students who enrolled in a charter school increased from from 1.6 to 5.1 percent.

Kelly said the school district’s budget is already tight—causing the board to eliminate some staff positions for the 2017-2018 school year—and if the number of students attending charter schools increases, then they would take additional district funds with them.

“That would create even more of a challenge for us to find ways to fund necessary programs and services for the core group of students attending our district schools,” she said.

Celentano said he’s going to continue to push for a STEM or STEAM charter school to be built in the district to give students an opportunity to have a higher level of learning experience.

“The school district, they can’t do it. They don’t have the money to do it,” he said. “I’m not talking about the infused curriculum, I’m talking about a separate [STEAM] venue.”

Ferrara said she knows there are going to be changes in education coming in the near future, and she wants the board to be prepared for to handle them, hinting that she expects the district may see an increase of charter applications in coming years.

“You can’t read the papers everyday and look at the problems that exist, look at the 2 percent tax cap in New Jersey, and not know that something is going to change,” she said. “While we don’t know what that change is going to look like, it’s better to be on the leading edge of the change and be aware of what’s coming down the pike, as opposed to being plowed under by surprise.”