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Vol. LXV, No. 42
Wednesday, October 19, 2011
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No Decision Yet in PIACS Suit Against Districts

Ellen Gilbert

In “an effort to protect the rights of parents and children under state law and prevent the misuse of public funds,” Princeton International Academy Charter School (PIACS) recently petitioned the Commissioner of Education to enjoin the Princeton Regional, West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional, and South Brunswick school districts from “spending public funds and using their governmental positions to further impede the opening of the school.”

No decision was made at a hearing on the case last week in which both sides presented oral arguments to Administrative Law Judge Lisa James-Beavers.

“The judge has up to 45 days to make an advisory decision which State Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf will accept or reject,” reported PIACS co-founder Parker Block. “Given the political season and the pressure being exerted by anti-charter school groups, we understand that the decision will not be made in a political vacuum. Nonetheless, we hope and are confident that the law protects the rights of the parents who want their children to attend this school.”

Princeton School Superintendent Judy Wilson reported that the district is “eagerly awaiting the judge’s ruling and hoping that it might come in an expedited manner in early November, prior to the 45 day permissible time frame.”

“The substantive question being raised by the suit is the extent to which a public school district can go outside the existing process to block a school from opening,” said Mr. Block. Since its actual inception more than two years ago PIACS has faced opposition from the three districts it hopes to serve.

“Invoices and e-mails obtained clearly show that the school districts have been active in trying to stop the school from opening,” noted Mr. Block. The documents, he said, “show that the school districts are using tax revenue to draft proposed legislation and are providing direction to the so-called ‘grass roots’ SOS [Save our Schools] N.J. group. The school districts’ questions and concerns were taken into consideration by the Commissioner [State Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf] during the application approval process. After the commissioner approved the PIACS application the school districts failed to appeal the decision.”

“Our attorneys argued that the statutes provide a process in which the school districts are able to present their concerns about a proposed charter school to the Department of Education (DOE),” said Mr. Block. “If the application is approved, the school districts have 45 days to appeal. Since they did not appeal, our attorney argued that the school districts have thus waived their right to further obstruct the school from opening or circumventing the authority of the DOE ”

David Carrol, the attorney for the three school districts reportedly argued that the school districts did not waive their right to oppose the application since the deadline for appealing the DOE decision is after the “final” approval (i.e. granting the charter), not the initial approval. Their arguments also reportedly included the school districts’ First Amendment right to make their positions known to the community on whatever issue they believe is relevant, and that their participation in zoning board hearings is intended to ensure the safety of the children.

In the meantime, Ms. Wilson reported that the district is “also following the legislative action on charter law reform and the East Brunswick Public Schools/Hatikvah case in the Appellate Court. All three of these ongoing issues will do doubt shape the near future of charter school regulations in New Jersey.”

“As far as the prospect of PIACs opening in September 2011, we have yet to see a new or revised application and there is no firm zoning application review date set,” said Ms. Wilson.

PIACS representatives have not indicated any change in their plans to open in September 2012.

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