Tuesday, May 30, 2017
Union Arts and Science Charter School (UASC) Gulen school abandons new location amid fraud & legal issues
Amid claims of fraud and facing legal action, plans for a fifth charter school in a rapidly expanding chain run by a Bergen County non-profit are dead, with officials for the proposed school deciding to “surrender” its charter and close all accounts.
The recent decision by the trustees of the Union Arts and Science Charter School (UASC), posted on their website, comes after the zoning board in the city of Linden narrowly voted down a variance needed for it to operate in a former Catholic school building.
It was the latest — and apparently insurmountable — problem on an increasingly rocky path to becoming the newest charter in a network run by iLearn Schools of Elmwood Park, one in a group of publicly funded charters that have their roots in the region’s Turkish community.
The Union school has been under fire from the Linden Board of Education, which claimed “forged and fraudulent” petitions had been used to show community involvement and support in its application. In many cases, a district investigation showed, residents said they didn’t know the person who had signed the petition using their address, and others denied signing it altogether.
In one instance the address given was a vacant lot; two other petitions included street addresses that don’t exist in Linden.
Ilearn has said it told the state it has "no control" over what was written on the petitions by those who completed the forms, which were submitted "in good faith."
The state, which under Gov. Chris Christie’s leadership has looked to expand the charter school movement, approved the application and, after the allegations landed in Trenton, reaffirmed its decision. The state official who fielded the claims made by Linden and contacted iLearn officials about them left his state job and now has an executive position with iLearn.
The Union school’s application was approved in February 2016, and a state decision on the final granting of its charter was expected this July. The school anticipated opening in Linden come fall.
Concerns about the Union application were first reported by The Record and NorthJersey.com in March. They surfaced after an investigation by the newspaper raised questions about charter oversight and showed how a group of schools that receive tens of millions of dollars in public funding have some leaders and founders with ties to the movement of a controversial Turkish cleric, Fethullah Gulen.
ILearn is also facing a rebellion in Clifton, where its Passaic Arts and Science charter is expanding, raising fiscal concerns. The Clifton school board recently adopted a resolution putting the state Education Department on notice that it will not budget an additional $2 million to cover the cost of sending more students to the growing iLearn school.
Linden’s board decided to fight the charter’s opening and had begun legal action, filing a lengthy petition asking the state, in part, to stay any approvals given the school to date and put the matter before an administrative law judge.
Dawn Fantasia, iLearn’s chief communications officer, did not respond to calls or an email on Tuesday. But a letter to parents on the website for the UASCS and iLearn — which also manages charters in Bergen, Passaic and Hudson counties — is clear.
“We are saddened that we are not able to be a part of your child’s education,” it says. “We urge you to stay involved and to continue to fight for your right to public school choice in your communities.”
The letter points to a “biased” decision by Linden zoning officials and the local school board’s efforts to besmirch the charter, leaving it unable to secure the building for the upcoming academic year.
It claims the school’s application before the zoning board “was rejected despite clear support and evidence of demand, safety and compliance.”
“We believe the decision of the Zoning Board had very little to do with actual municipal land use law, and instead was a result of political pressure and an aggressive campaign to discredit the charter school launched by the Linden Board of Education,” the letter reads. “This biased decision is a blow to the hundreds of applicants — the children and families of Linden and Elizabeth — who have had their ability for public school choice taken from them.”
The letter links to a resolution by the school’s trustees titled “Resolution to Surrender Charter.” It notes that the final granting of a charter requires submission of documentation that includes the lease, mortgage or title to a facility as well as a certificate of occupancy for education.
Despite “diligent efforts,” it says, a use variance needed for operation of the school was denied on May 8. Any appeal, it continues, even if successful, would not be resolved within the time required for the charter to begin operating in the 2017-18 school year.
It says the charter “is SURRENDERED” and authorizes the school’s lead person to take any other action “to wind up the affairs of UASC, satisfy any and all obligations incurred on its behalf, and close any and all accounts held in its name.”
Messages left for the secretary and chairman of Linden’s zoning board of adjustment did not draw responses Tuesday. Mark Ritacco, the city’s zoning official, said one reason the school was before the zoning board was that it needed a use variance: Local ordinances permit just one principal use on a non-residential property, and there’s already a church on the property.
The charter sees it differently. It notes in the letter to parents that its request to use the vacant building was supported by the parish, expert testimony — including a traffic study and safety plan — and families from Linden and Elizabeth who had enrolled children in the school.
“The building is currently used not only for religious education, but also as a Polish Cultural Center, with hundreds of students attending in aggregate. To be clear, a parochial school could open in the building tomorrow without additional variance approvals,” it reads.
Linden Superintendent of Schools Danny A. Robertozzi said Tuesday that he was happy to hear the school would not go forward and was eager to share the news with his board.
“I’m not against charter schools, but this was not anything that we’ve ever asked for, that this community wanted,” he said. “It was based on a fraudulent application. There were too many issues with it. If the parents of Linden wanted a charter school and did it the right way I would support them in their endeavors, and that’s really the truth.”
Robertozzi and others in the district had been rankled on a number of fronts. One was what he had termed “bogus” petitions. The other was the charter school’s founders: Three of five — including a former Bergen County sheriff — are paid by iLearn or charters it runs.
And there was money — often the cause of friction between charter schools and the traditional public schools. Money follows students from their home district to their charter of choice. Linden was anticipating a $2.88 million hit to its budget due to the Union charter, and a potential loss of 50 staff jobs.
Robertozzi said the tone of the resolution and letter to parents “makes it sound like it’s completely done.”
“That sounds like it’s not even attempting to come back and open somewhere else,” he said.
“We did bring to light a lot of other issues that, maybe, they don’t want to see what would happens if that gets pursued any further,” he said. “It might be easier to go out on this note.”