The Tikun Olam Hebrew Language Charter High School has been rejected for a fourth time by the state Department of Education.
The rejection came in a Jan. 20 announcement from the state’s acting education commissioner, Chris Cerf, in which the DOE approved only eight charter schools, all in urban areas.
The Tikun Olam school, which has become a lightning rod in the charter school debate, was originally to include students from Highland Park and Edison.
New Brunswick was added in its third attempt and Highland Park dropped in its latest application.
Tikun Olam founder Sharon Akman of Highland Park told NJJN on Jan. 23 that “it’s to be determined” whether she would reapply for a fifth time by the April 2 deadline.
Opposition to the bid has been organized by Speak Up Highland Park, whose members contended that the application violated many of the state’s requirements, including that school founders have children enrolled in the public schools and that applicants have an approved location.
The bid came under increased scrutiny Jan. 8 after a New York Times columnist outlined various misrepresentations in its application to the state.
Among its “repeated distortions,” the Times reported, are claims of nonexistent endorsements from local politicians and a claim that the school would be located in St. Mary of Mount Virgin Church in New Brunswick. The site continued to appear on the application even after Diocese of Metuchen Bishop Paul Bootkoski rescinded the offer in the face of growing opposition.
Following the publication of the Times article, the Manhattan-based Hebrew Charter School Center, which provided a “small development grant” to the school organizers in 2009, put out a statement saying it “is not involved with Tikun Olam, we do not support their application, and we share many of the concerns that the Times and others have raised about it.”
Akman labeled many of the charges leveled against the school as untrue. “We think we have an excellent application,” she said. “We have tried to create an exciting, high-quality opportunity for our community.”
Speak Up Highland Park spokesperson Darcie Cimarusti welcomed the DOE rejection, saying, “We certainly understand why Sharon wants to reapply, but the question is will the state allow her to reapply?”
While the state has said there is no limit to the times an applicant may reapply, Cimarusti said both the state and federal governments require an applicant to sign documents certifying that all the information submitted is true.
Prior to the latest application, the federal Department of Education awarded the school a $600,000 grant — including seed money — which is apparently on hold pending state approval.
“You sign these certifications of assurance under penalty of perjury,” Cimarusti explained. If government agencies “find the information is untrue, there should be a penalty and that penalty should be denial and loss of the ability to reapply.”
In October, a spokesperson for the federal department told NJJN there are safeguards in place to prevent the school from using the money should problems develop.
Jeffrey Lischin, who identified himself as a consultant to the Tikun Olam founders, said in a statement that its leaders are “saddened and disappointed they were not approved. The DOE has never given a substantial explanation for previous denials and it is unlikely there were any this time.”
Instead, he wrote, founders have been “harassed through misinformation and disingenuous traditional district leaders who love their monopoly.” They are flouting the spirit of the charter school law, he said, which envisions the concept as establishing vehicles for “educational improvement through competition and choice. Sadly that vision is being harmed and most sadly students are being harmed.”
Lischin, an associate of the NJ Charter School Resource Center, said Tikun Olam’s founders are “committed to a multicultural, ethnically diverse, economically diverse secular school.”
He added he would “not address the accusations of misconduct because of legal implications other than to say it is my personal opinion that the founders were slandered.”
“I have rarely been as proud to be associated with a group of committed citizens pursuing a noble cause as I have by the Tikun Olam founders,” wrote Lischin.