Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIV, No. 28
Wednesday, July 14, 2010
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New Charter School Hits Roadblock

Ellen Gilbert

“Right now it looks like the most insignificant of technicalities and political manipulation from the school district heavies did the trick,” said Princeton International Academy Charter School (PIACS) spokesman Parker Block, describing the consequences of last week’s decision by the Plainsboro Zoning and Adjustment Board not to hear the school’s request for a variance so that it can occupy premises at St. Joseph’s Seminary.

The decision, according to the Zoning and Adjustment Board, was based on the fact that the application failed to include the business hours when members of the public could inspect it. The Department of Education (DOE) had a July 17 deadline for submitting the approved variance for the proposed Mandarin immersion school to open this fall. Now it is up to State Education Commission Bret Schundler, who will decide in the next couple of days whether to grant an extension on the deadline for submitting the Certificate of Occupancy.

The Zoning Board vote was not unanimous. “I don’t see this as something the courts would sustain,” said member Jack Venturi, noting that the courts “rarely hold to technicalities” and tend to “relax the rules.”

“There are 170 children waiting to go to this school,” said PIACS attorney Christopher Costa, a sentiment echoed by Zoning and Adjustment Board member William Kennedy when he noted that, looking out over the standing-room-only crowd in the Plainsboro courtroom that evening, he saw “170 reasons to go forward.”

The hours for viewing the application “were implicit,” added Mr. Kennedy. Mr. Costa noted that the Plainsboro Municipal Center is not exactly a tiny borough hall with limited hours of operation, and those interested in examining the request could count on regular business hours.

Advising the Board to “take the safe, logical approach,” however, attorney Michael Balint countered arguments about “11th hour” moves, “form over substance,” and “plain common sense.”

“The Board is in a compromised position because an element of the notice was missing,” he said. “Technical compliance is mandatory for the Board to have jurisdiction.” He expressed pride in the minimal number of law suits brought against the Board to date, and noted that the DOE deadline was “not relevant to the Board’s decision.”

Mr. Parker quoted former DOE Commissioner Gordon McInnes, who observed that “zoning questions are frequently decided on grounds other than the strength of the master plan. Politics drives most of these decisions.”

“The most powerful political forces in our community, those who control the largest budgets, are the politicians who oversee our school districts,” added Mr. Block. At least, he said, “we now know that the school district politicians had nothing substantive with which to challenge the school’s use variance request.”

“The Princeton Regional School Board’s objections to PIACS have been clear and strong since last October,” observed Superintendent Judy Wilson. “These are founded on many facets, ranging from issues of finance to issues of segregation, to issues of converting a private school into a public charter, and, overall, diluting taxpayer dollars to serve the purposes of a small group of individuals. Certainly we have been active on all fronts: legislative, DOE, as well as the Plainsboro Zoning and Adjustment Board hearing, and I believe that when the case is heard there will be many other objections and serious issues connected to the zoning board variance.”

“I was very pleased with the decision,” said West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional School District Board of Education President Hemant Marathe. “As you know the school district had requested the zoning board not to hear the application, and we are also hoping that the Commissioner will not grant an extension to the deadline. The issue is not simply objecting for the sake of objecting. The public school district is responsible for transporting all the kids to the charter school, and busing is expensive. It’s really unfair to treat a certain group of people differently and put all the obligations on the public school district.”

Responding to an earlier complaint that PIACS would not be paying local taxes at the seminary location, Mr. Parker noted that that “facility was used to house a school for decades. Despite being subsequently zoned for commercial use, St Vincent’s Hall [a building at St. Joseph’s] has been used almost exclusively as a school facility and, as such, has never generated tax revenue for Plainsboro. So there is no negative financial impact on the township by using this facility for a school.”

He also dismissed a description of PIACS as “a boutique private school masquerading as a charter school,” by noting that “only 11 students of the 170 registered with PIACS are currently attending the Ying Hua International School (YHIS). YHIS would continue to coexist with PIACS, just like the other 30 schools in the region that have students registered with PIACS.” On a related note, he said, the contention that PIACS is a school created by Chinese for Chinese and “does not reflect the diversity of our community” is “completely erroneous. The majority of the founders of PIACS are not Chinese, nor are the students who have been registered. Over 50 percent of the registered students come from families where Mandarin is not spoken at home. The parents of students registered at PIACS come from England, Japan, Nigeria, India, Germany, Korea, Mexico, Russia, and France.”

Countering the perception that funding charter schools forces school districts to cut jobs and programs, Mr. Block pointed out that PIACs budget “is 0.6 percent of the combined school districts’ budget. This is not the order of magnitude that would require any programs to be cut. The actual reasons for the program cuts are budget cuts that are being made at the state and local level. These cuts have nothing to do with PIACS. Moreover, the Princeton Charter School (PCS) has proven for over a decade that a charter school can achieve better results at lower cost in large part because it does not bear the burden of a bloated district administration.”

“Recent negative comments by PRS’s superintendent and the board president demonstrate the same hostility that greeted PCS’s founding 14 years ago,” agreed James Deneen, author of Schools that Succeed, Students Who Achieve. “It’s discouraging to see educators speak of how ‘they’ are taking ‘our’ money, without any reference to how schools like PCS or, potentially, PIACS enrich the community by elevating academic standards and providing parents with choices for their children.”

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