Inconsistencies in Urban Hope Act process lead to changes in Camden RFP

On Thursday, board members were surprised and angry to learn from state education official Michael Azzara, who monitors fiscal matters in the district, that the requests for proposals for Urban Hope Act renaissance schools will be amended and reissued, and that the board may not make initial recommendations on which proposals to accept.

The announcement came a week after the state released its rules and regulations Friday for how the Urban Hope Act/Renaissance School process should work.

The 25-page document is more of a how-to approve a Renaissance School listing, which was supposed to help Camden school board members who were starting to review three proposals for Renaissance projects. My colleague Rita Giordano and I wrote about whom these players are and what their plans are in a story that ran Monday.  

From its release, a potential problem was noticeable. The new regulations seem to have at least one significant contradiction to the actual statute that governs such projects. And as Azzara pointed out Thursday, The regulations and Camden’s request for proposal specification on experience also differ.

The idea behind the Urban Hope Act is that a nonprofit entity with experience in operating an urban district school could come into a place like Camden and have a positive effect. Now for background, the law does allow nonprofits to partner with other entities, including for –profits, to provide various management and operational services.  But the experience burden of proof should fall on the nonprofit, according to the law.

Straight from the Urban Hope Act:

“A nonprofit entity seeking to create a renaissance school project shall have experience in operating a school in a high-risk, low-income urban district. In addition, an entity retained by the nonprofit entity for the purpose of financing or constructing the renaissance school project shall also have appropriate experience.”

Now read the regulations part that defines experience as it relates to these Renaissance projects:

“Years of experience” means quantifiable experience that can be derived from either the nonprofit entity having relevant experience in operating a school in a high-risk, low-income urban school district, or the nonprofit proposer partnering with another entity to staff, operate, or manage the renaissance school, and that entity has experience in operating a school in a high-risk, low-income urban school district.”

Either… Or. That is not what the law says, according to the interpretation of some, including David Sciarra, a lawyer and executive director of the Education Law Center, which advocates for urban districts.

“The board is to partner with an experienced provider… whatever subcontractor that provider hires,” should not count as experience for the nonprofit, Sciarra said. “A nonprofit is supposed to lead the educational program … and have a track record.”

However, state Department of Education spokeswoman Barbara Morgan insists that the Urban Hope Act does allow for a nonprofit to partner with an experienced partner to open a Renaissance School.

"We believe that our regulations reflect statutory intent,” Morgan said.

However, the state recognized this week that the RFP and the regulations should match each other. The regulations say no more than three years experience need to be required of renaissance school operators, while the RFP mandated 10 years.

Other nonprofits could have applied had the RFP required less experience, Azzara said.

And so, he will be amending the RFP and reissuing it sometime next week. No board approval is needed to issue the RFP, he said.

In addition, once the new proposals come in (deadline will be end of the month), it will be Azzara and Camden acting superintendent Reuben Mills who go over the proposals and rank them. They will then present recommendations to the school board at the Sep. 18 work session.

The full board had expected to meet Tuesday to evaluate and rank the proposals.

Almost every board member was in shock and disagreement with the changes.

“Don’t you dare take time to go through proposals that will take kids and money out of our schools when you should be focusing on improving schools,” board member Sean Brown told acting superintendent Mills.

The school board would eventually vote on the proposals Azzara and Mills recommend.