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Khan responds to DOE’s charter school denial

In late 2010, neighbors in the Ashland section of Cherry Hill welcomed their new neighbor to 99 Burnt Mill Road.

Pastor Amir Khan, who has now led the Solid Rock Worship Center for nearly two decades, brought his church community to the former Holy Rosary Parish, which was part of the Diocese of Camden.

The parish had merged with Holy Eucharist Parish on Kresson Road in Cherry Hill. Khan entered into a lease purchase agreement with the parish to eventually buy the $2.9 million property on the Cherry Hill/Voorhees border.

But neighbors and community members say things changed once there was more police activity in their neighborhood. In early 2011, the Cherry Hill Police Department had evidence that a man who was staying at the church had burglarized neighbors.

Meetings were held to dispel the fears of residents living near the church, and Khan apologized.

Things had quieted down.

Then, last year, Khan announced plans to open the Regis Academy Charter School on the property, a publicly funded institution drawing students from Cherry Hill, Voorhees, Somerdale and Lawnside.

The Cherry Hill School District alone was originally tasked with setting aside nearly $2 million to fund 169 students to attend the charter. Voorhees was asked to find about $700,000 to support students from the township.

Residents, public officials and school district staff had begun to speak out against the need for a charter school in high-performing district such as Cherry Hill and Voorhees.

The Cherry Hill and Voorhees school districts, with the support of the others, sent letters to the state Department of Education asking for the commissioner to take a closer look at the charter application.

One of the school district’s arguments was that the schools already provide a quality education to students in the municipalities the charter school would serve.

Residents and community members also rallied, petitioned and even testified in Trenton against the Regis Academy Charter School.

Ashland resident Rita McClellan, who lives just a few houses from the church property, led the charge by creating Speak Up South Jersey, a community group dedicated to maintaining New Jersey’s public schools.

“When I found out Regis was coming, I was vehemently opposed to it,” McClellan said. “Cherry Hill has excellent schools. So does Voorhees. The charter wasn’t needed so we fought against it.”

With the help of neighbors, school district and board of education members from Cherry Hill and Voorhees, the residents’ voices were heard loud and clear.

On July 6, after a Department of Education readiness walk-though inspection, one final step in charter school approval, DOE Assistant Commissioner and Chief Innovation Officer Evo Popoff announced that Regis Academy Charter School would not be opening its doors this fall.

The DOE cited misrepresentations in the charter school application in its letter to Khan, which was also sent to school superintendents.

The DOE also denied the application since the charter school did not have a suitable facility.

Susan Bastnagel, the Cherry Hill School District’s public information officer, said the readiness walk-through occurred at 202 Park Boulevard in Cherry Hill, not at 99 Burnt Mill Road, the site Khan had been renting for the past few years.

Peter Feuerherd, the Diocese of Camden’s director of communications, earlier this week, said the Solid Rock agreed to leave the premise by July 19. Earlier this month, the diocese had filed a Warrant of Removal.

“In general, it was a failure to pay and failure to live up to the agreement,” Feuerherd said.

Khan has failed to purchase the building in full past previous deadlines, Feuerherd said. The most recent agreement between the parish and Khan requested the property be paid in full by Jan. 3 of this year.

Earlier this week, Khan said he and the diocese had reached a “friendly agreement” and said he was vacating the property on July 18. He said his church had been leasing the building and could leave at any point, since he was only paying month-to-month.

Khan said he had no comment yet on where the church was relocating to or if he would be appealing or reapplying for the charter application in the future.

But, Khan did send a letter to Popoff in response to the DOE’s letter of denial dated July 6, expressing his concern over being denied the charter.

“Regis Academy did not make any material misrepresentations either in its charter application or during the charter preparedness process,” Khan wrote in his July 9 letter, obtained from the DOE. “There is simply no basis upon which the commissioner’s determinations, at least conveyed by your letter, meet even the barest requirements of due process.”

The school, originally set to open on the parish property, anticipated 78 students to attend from the four original sending school districts of Cherry Hill, Voorhees, Lawnside and Somerdale.

The money set aside for the charter school has not been paid yet to the state, Bastnagel said, but the board of education is currently discussing where to use those funds for this upcoming school year.

Bastnagel said the district was pleased that the original set aside had been reduced from footing the bill for 169 students to 22 students, according to a June 11 enrollment report.

“It was originally 169 students and close to $2 million. We would have had to make adjustments and could have had to make cuts,” Bastnagel said. “Luckily the set aside had been reduced, so it’s not as devastating.”

McClellan said she and those who fought for the cause are happy with the DOE’s decision.

“It was a group of people. I couldn’t have done this by myself,” McClellan said, noting the support from Jeanine Martin of Voorhees, Darcie Cimarusti of Highland Park and countless others. “It was a concerned effort.”

McClellan also said she and her neighbors never opposed the church itself, just the charter school.

And now that they’ve passed this hurdle, they’ve got an even greater goal in mind.

“It’s bigger than just fighting for local control,” McClellan said. “We still have issues statewide. Charter schools need to be held more accountable. And the local communities need to have input on the decision.”

About Melissa DiPento

If it happens in Cherry Hill, I want to know about it. I'm a South Philly resident/South Jersey suburbanite and will see the story first-hand, even if that means riding my single-speed bike along Route 70. I especially enjoy writing about politics and sustainability.View all posts by Melissa DiPento