George E. Norcross III, the longtime Democratic power broker in South Jersey and chairman of Cooper University Health Care, announced the launch Wednesday of a $28.5 million fund that will pay for construction and renovation of Camden's "Renaissance" schools.
Norcross, also an insurance executive, said that he would raise $5.7 million from local organizations and individuals, including $1 million from his family, and that the rest would come from 4-to-1 matching by national philanthropic foundations.
The local fund is being established by the nonprofit Charter School Growth Fund, a national venture capital fund that invests in charter schools.
Hybrids of public and charter schools, Renaissance schools are publicly funded but privately operated. Unlike charter schools, they guarantee seats to every child in the school's neighborhood, and they have contracts with the district mandating services like special education. By law, they must operate in new or renovated buildings.
The "Camden Facility Fund" will support the expansion of Camden's Renaissance schools, which are operated by KIPP, Mastery, and Uncommon Schools.
"We didn't want Mastery and Uncommon to have to go out with hat in hand," Norcross said Wednesday.
Since 2006, the Charter School Growth Fund has received more than $100 million in funding from the Walton Foundation, the philanthropic organization started by the founders of Walmart, as well as grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
The local investors in the Camden fund would make no-interest loans with guaranteed repayment in seven years, Norcross said. The loans will be matched by foundation grants and used to provide loans to the schools.
The expansion of Renaissance schools in Camden has begun to transform the district, which has been under state control since 2013.
The schools were approved to open in New Jersey as part of the 2012 Urban Hope Act, sponsored by Norcross' brother U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross (D., Camden) when he was a state senator. Since the first school was established in Camden, a KIPP school that bears the Norcross name and opened in 2014, eight others have followed.
"None of these schools can get built fast enough or renovated fast enough for any of us," George Norcross said.
Some Camden residents have accused Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard, appointed by Gov. Christie, of promoting Renaissance schools over fighting for long-overdue improvements to traditional public schools. Rouhanifard has said partnering with Renaissance operators can fast-track renovation projects because operators can secure work without a public bidding process.
The state-run Schools Development Authority is responsible for making repairs to schools in the state's poorest districts, but the work is often delayed. Lanning Square residents waited for more than a decade for a new neighborhood school, but after Renaissance schools were approved, the state-of-the-art KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy building went up in less than two years.
Camden High School was promised $110 million for major renovations in 2008, a project later shelved by Christie. In 2014, Christie announced that Camden High was in line to receive at least half of that funding, and Rouhanifard said the project was moving forward this year.
Many parents whose children attend the new Renaissance schools are happy with their children's experiences, but critics say the schools siphon students from already struggling traditional public schools.
Just under 10,000 students attended traditional public schools in Camden last year, down from about 12,000 in 2013. About 2,200 were enrolled in Renaissance schools, with 4,000 more attending charters.
Some parents also say the new schools have fostered a sense of inequity among students who are stuck in the older buildings. Children who live outside the catchment areas for the Renaissance schools can apply to these schools, but many end up on waiting lists. Plans to expand Uncommon, Mastery, and KIPP are underway.
Brendan Lowe, a spokesman for the district, said district leaders were excited that Renaissance schools have led to the rapid development of the district's decaying buildings.
"For three years, we've been calling for 21st-century public school buildings," he said. "They're desperately needed in a district where half of our buildings were constructed before 1928. This is another step forward for our students and families, and we look forward to taking another one this fall as we prepare for the modernization of Camden High School."