MILLVILLE – A charter school has more than doubled in size after using a $5.5 million loan to buy part of the former Wheaton industries complex.

Millville Public Charter School got an auditorium, public spaces and other room for the school to add new grade levels and handle an increasing student population, said Douglas McGarry, the school’s business administrator.

The loan was made to the Friends of Millville Public Charter School by HighMark School Development, a Utah-based company that specializes in charter school development. HighMark is already involved in developing charter schools in Bridgeton and Vineland that with the Millville school are operated by the Cumberland County Charter School Network.

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The expansion of charter schools in New Jersey is controversial, in part because school districts contend they drain money from district budgets.

However, charter schools have the support of Gov. Chris Christie.

The governor confirmed that support while addressing the New Jersey Charter Schools Conference in Atlantic City in May and told the organization its enemy is the New Jersey Education Association.

Christie told the organization he expects accountability from charter schools and wants to increase their numbers. Charter schools are designed to give parents more say in where their children go to school, and Christie considers them an alternative to what he considers failing or underachieving public schools.

Christie recently signed legislation that permits nonpublic schools to be converted to charter schools. Nine more charter schools, all in North Jersey, applied for state certification this week and expect to open next school year.

In Cumberland County, HighMark is building a new facility on Pennsylvania Avenue in Vineland for the Vineland Public Charter School.

The project is estimated at $10 million, said McGarry, who also serves as the Vineland school’s business administrator. It’s hoped the school will open some time during this school year, he said.

Last year, HighMark financed the purchase of the former Cumberland County government administration building on Commerce Street in Bridgeton for use by the Bridgeton Public Charter School. The building sold for $1.2 million. HighMark leases the building to the school.

Friends of the Millville Public Charter School used the $5.5 million loan to buy the 30,000 square feet of space currently used by the school, along with more than 37,000 additional square feet and some land, at the facility on Wheaton Avenue. The property was bought in July from Millville Investment Group LLC, which McGarry said bought the former Wheaton complex years ago and operates it as a “multitenant building.”

Friends of Millville Public School lease the land and building space to the school, McGarry said. State law forbids charter schools to directly own or build a school, he said.

“They are the landlord for the school,” McGarry said of the organization. “It sets up a situation where we won’t have to worry about lease issues. It solidifies our space.”

Some of the new space is already in use. That includes rooms Wheaton used as sort of hotel rooms for the company’s visiting customers. Those rooms were converted into school offices.

The state Department of Education in March gave the school permission for the K-5 institution to add a 20-student seventh-grade class for this school year and expand that grade to a maximum of 45 students by 2019-20.

The school also gained approval for an eighth-grade class of 20 students in 2017-18 and expansion of that grade to 30 students in 2019-20.

The state approved the school’s expansion of its class sizes in grades K-3 this school year to a maximum of 60 students in each grade. Overall enrollment is allowed to increase from 313 students this school year to 447 students in 2019-20.

McGarry said the school is operating at the maximum enrollment the state allows.

HighMark’s participation was crucial to the school’s expansion plans, he said.

“Charter schools are unique in that no one wants to loan them money, because they’re an oddity in the marketplace,” he said.

HighMark did about a year’s worth of investigation into the school before deciding to make the $5.5 million loan, McGarry said.

As for the other two schools, the state Education Department in March approved a ninth-grade class with as many as 50 for the Vineland Public Charter School. The additional grade, which will make the school a K-9 institution, began this school year. The school’s maximum enrollment is set by the state at 446 students by 2017-18.

The Bridgeton Public Charter School is a K-2 facility. The state approved the facility to open for the 2015-16 school year with about 100 students in kindergarten and first grade. It has approved eventual expansion to 285 students in grades K-4.

Contact: 609-226-9197 Twitter @acpressbarlas

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