N.J. charter schools seek help from state

New Jersey's charter schools are turning to state lawmakers in hopes of avoiding budget cuts and losses to per-pupil spending.

In testimony before the state Assembly and Senate budget committees, New Jersey Charter Public School Association executive director Jessani Gordon said last week that the Garden State's 62 charters needed an additional $9 million if they were to keep per-pupil funding at the current year's levels.

The charters - a growing movement in the state, particularly in poorer communities with underperforming public schools - are projected to get a $35 million increase in state funding over last year, but advocates say that number is misleading.

"Yes, we get $35 million more, but we're seeing enrollment growth," said charter association spokeswoman Debra Wachpress. Funding levels are not keeping pace, she said.

The charter student body, now at about 19,000, is projected to grow 3,500 in the coming school year. In some cases, charters add grades by the year, or new schools open. Locally next fall, Riverbank of Excellence in Florence Township, Burlington County, and Institute of Excellence in Winslow, Camden County, are tentatively scheduled to open as new elementary charter schools. Seven charters currently operate in the City of Camden.

"Our enrollments are up, our funding is down, and that means something has to give," Wachpress said. "And that something is staff, facilities, and other vital things that make our schools work."

Statewide, 12 charters are scheduled to see their overall budgets shrink, including two schools where enrollment has decreased. In addition, according to charter association analysis, 46 out of the 62 charters will have less money to spend per pupil, affecting about 15,000 students.

That includes six of Camden's seven charters, ranging from $170 per pupil less for the Environment Community Opportunity Charter School to $709 per student for Camden's Promise charter. One school in the Asbury Park area is projected to have more than $2,400 less per child.

"What this means is, we're going to have to be even more creative," said Antoinette Dendtler, founder of the Environment Community Opportunity Charter School.

Already, she said, her school partners with local art and music organizations to provide students with programs that might otherwise not be affordable.

What Dendtler said she would like to see is for charters to be funded at the same level as other district schools. As it now stands, charters get about 70 percent or less, according to the charter association.

Currently, charters are entitled to 90 percent of the per-pupil state and local aid of the school district in which they are located. However, under the new school-funding formula adopted last year, charters do not receive a share of the districts' supplemental, so-called adjustment aid. That would require changing the law, according to state Education Department spokesman Richard Vespucci.

According to state statistics, the average per-pupil spending in charter schools is $12,018, compared with $13,539 for students in traditional public schools.

Last year, the Legislature came up with an additional $2.1 million when 17 charters were looking at diminished per-pupil funding, said Gordon of the charter association.

In lean fiscal times, the charters are reviewing their budgets and hoping.

"These are tough times, and we already receive so much less than Camden City per pupil while still educating the same children," said Joseph Conway, a cofounder of Camden Academy, Camden's Pride, and Camden's Promise charters. The per-pupil decrease for the three schools ranges from $479 to $709.

"We do a lot of grant writing to support our educational programs and bridge the gap in funding," Conway said. "We will do our best that any budget decisions that we make do not harm the classroom or school program."


Contact staff writer Rita Giordano at 856-779-3841 or rgiordano@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writer Jonathan Tamari contributed to this article.