March 8, 2017

District Will Appeal Charter Expansion 

The N.J. Acting Commissioner of Education on March 1 approved Princeton Charter School’s (PCS) proposal to expand its enrollment by 76 additional students, but the conflict that has raged in Princeton over the past three months since PCS submitted its application is not over.

Princeton Public Schools (PPS) announced yesterday that it will be filing an appeal of the decision with the Appellate Division of the Superior Court, and the Board will also file a request with the Acting Commissioner Kimberley Harrington to stay her decision.

“We are filing this appeal on behalf of the students and the taxpayers of the Princeton community,” PPS Superintendent Steve Cochrane said. “It is economically, educationally, and ethically unjust that a majority of the allowable increase in the school budget will, for years to come, fund the expansion of 76 students at the Princeton Charter School, while leaving a much smaller portion for the nearly 3800 students in the growing and far more diverse Princeton Public Schools.”

PCS and Princeton Public Schools have also sued each other over violation of the Sunshine Law [Open Public Meetings Act]. Those suits are pending in State Superior Court.

Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert expressed concern that the expansion decision was made at the state rather than local level. “I’ve heard from many residents, who opposed the expansion, who are confused by the decision and outraged,” she said. “This has been an extremely contentious issue for the community, and I believe it was made worse by the process. Decisions like this one about how local tax dollars are spent should be made at the local level by officials who are accountable to the taxpayers. I’ve heard from Charter School parents, too, who are upset about the backlash. Had this been a community decision, I believe there would have been more opportunity for productive dialogue.”

Mr. Cochrane, who last week described the expansion decision as “deeply
disappointing,” stated, “There are some principles worth fighting for. The funding for our children’s education is one of them.”

In earlier statements to the community and a formal response to the State DOE, Mr. Cochrane has emphasized the “devastating” financial impact on the District, necessitating cuts in staff and programs. In a statement last week he wrote, “We remain concerned, as well, that the PCS application was designed without the input of our community and that its approval will effectively appropriate $1.2 million in taxes every year, without any vote.”

PPS Board President Patrick Sullivan called the Charter School’s proposed expansion “unfair,” “outrageous,” and “an act of vandalism against our community.” He added, “The Charter School Board is celebrating their gain at the expense of the rest of us, but they should be ashamed. This expansion runs exactly counter to what our community wanted and was done with zero input or representation from the affected parties. The Board of Education will fight this expansion with every means at our disposal.”

In announcing approvals for 22 New Jersey charter school expansions, State Commissioner Harrington stated, “Many parents continue to choose to send their children to public charter schools, and we remain committed to being responsive to their calls for increased opportunities for their children.”

In her letter of approval to PCS to increase enrollment and to implement a weighted lottery, she noted that the State’s comprehensive review of applications included “student performance on statewide assessments, operational stability, fiscal viability, public comment, fiscal impact on sending districts, and other information.” There was no additional comment in the letter concerning voluminous input from the Princeton community, which included a resolution from the Town Council opposing the expansion.

In response to requests for further information, State BOE press secretary David Saenz simply stated, “As part of the decision making process, all comments and information from the school district and members of the community are reviewed.” He also confirmed the District’s right to appeal the decision.

Charter School Board Chair Paul Josephson applauded the acting commissioner’s decision but acknowledged that the expansion request has “been at the center of a heated debate within our community.” He further stated, “It is unfortunate that school funding laws put our public schools at odds at moments like these, and we reiterate our call that PPS work with us to find a legislative solution that makes us allies in the cause of better public education.”

In a statement issued immediately following the decision last week, Mr. Josephson argued that the PCS plan would “have minimal financial impact to the school district,” and he emphasized that “a weighted lottery will ensure that more ethnically diverse, socio-economically disadvantaged students are given the opportunity to attend PCS.”

Larry Patton, PCS Head, added, “We are working on the timing for the weighted lottery implementation. We want to promote the maximum possible impact of the weighted lottery in increasing the number of economically disadvantaged at PCS.” He mentioned that PCS would be advertising the timing and details of the lottery and expressing its desire to continue to meet with the district to plan and work together.

In a posting on Facebook last week, Save Our Schools NJ, an organization of parents and other public education supporters, decried last week’s approval of 22 charter school expansions, calling it the Christie Administration’s “last ditch effort to forcibly privatize New Jersey public schools.”

Claiming that charter school populations are “segregated by income, special needs, English proficiency, race, and ethnicity and that the expansions drain funds from the public school system,” the statement continued, “The sending communities objected and fought these expansions, but their children’s futures do not matter. This is a purely political decision by Christie, who has been clear about his hatred for public education. These indiscriminate and obviously political charter expansions are a perfect example of why the next governor must change New Jersey’s charter school law to require community approval for new and expanding charter schools.”