Trail-Blazing Deal Promises New Life for Old, Dilapidated Public School in Newark

September 27, 2013

Built in 1876, a Newark elementary school that served the Central Ward for generations before it was closed in 2012 will get a new life after all – as a charter school.

A recently completed deal calls for the transfer of the former Eighteenth Avenue School to the foundation arm of the TEAM Academy charter-school network, which is part of the national KIPP charter network and is New Jersey’s largest charter operator.

It is the first such sale in New Jersey. The purchase price was $4.3 million, according to the sales agreement signed last month.

Following years of various turnaround efforts, the Newark school was closed in 2012 due to a combination of declining enrollment, dilapidated conditions and low academic performance.

TEAM’s founder announced yesterday in an email message to supporters that the network would put an estimated $32 million in additional funds raised through low-interest bonds into the 1876 building’s renovation, with plans to open a new elementary and middle school in the four-story building in the next two years.

The new school, actually a separate elementary and middle school, will house 920 students – triple the size of the enrollment at Eighteenth Avenue when it eventually closed.

“The building was basically unusable,” said Ryan Hill, executive director of TEAM, in an interview yesterday. “The district had actually used it past what we thought was usable. . . It basically needs everything, including environmental work.”

Added Newark superintendent Cami Anderson: “This is a win-win-win. We modernized an unsafe and unoccupied building which was costly to maintain, we raised needed revenue through the sale, and brought the community a new top-notch school."

Still, the planned sale sparked dissent among some community activists who have protested the closure of district schools and the rise of charter schools in the city. They have contended that the Christie administration and Anderson have been too cozy with the private charter-school movement.

The sale comes at the same time as the new Teachers Village opened in Newark with the help of $100 million in state and federal tax credits. It will be home to two new charter schools, as well as residential and retail space. Gov. Chris Christie attended the ribbon-cutting on Wednesday.

The president of the district’s advisory school board, Antoinette Baskerville-Richardson, said she wishes the state had made available to the district the facilities funding that it is making available to the charters.

“That’s the inequity,” she said last night.

Hill said the sale would only help the district move what was an obsolete property, given its costs, while at the same time helping TEAM solving its facility needs. He said two of TEAM’s existing elementary schools are now in temporary quarters, and one will likely move to the new space.

“Who can object to off-loading a building that you are not using and couldn’t afford to renovate to a charter school that would grow one way or the other?” Hill said in an interview. “Most will see this as a win-win-win.”

In his announcement earlier in the day, Hill commended Anderson for looking past the political risks.

“It is unfortunately unusual for a superintendent to put the interests of all the kids of her city first, regardless of what kind of school they attend, but that is exactly what Anderson is doing,” Hill wrote.

TEAM had been eyeing the property since it was first targeted for closure in 2011, a victim of declining enrollments in the district as a whole and years of only nominal maintenance to its brick-and-concrete structure. For the better part of five years, scaffolding lined its base to protect students from the hazard of falling bricks and masonry.

Hill said there will be a top-to-bottom, inside-and-out renovation. The work will be funded through federal Qualified Zone Academy Bonds (QZAB) that have been made available through the state to charter schools to help address facility needs.

The bonds can only be used for renovations, not new construction, and Hill said that sealed the deal for upgrading this structure rather than building anew.

The financing “is basically what made it cost-effective for us,” he said. “It’s ends up being a good deal for everybody.”

TEAM was the only bidder on the property, Hill said and the district confirmed, and it actually saw its first bid rejected. Two appraisals were conducted on the property, and Hill said the final bid landed between the two appraisals.

Baskerville-Richardson, the board president, said she asked Anderson that the sales money go to facilities funding for the district, but was told it would likely go to the general fund to help close a budget gap.

Nonetheless, she said the board hopes to play a bigger role going forward in any future building sales, and said it is one of the conditions she is insisting on in negotiations with the Christie administration over the return of limited controls to the community.

“The larger issue is of state control, and what will change is that any sales will have to come before the board in the future,” she said.