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Vol. LXV, No. 47
Wednesday, November 23, 2011
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Judge Rules Against PIACS Challenge To School Districts

Ellen Gilbert

An administrative law judge has ruled in favor of the three school districts challenged by the proposed Princeton International Academy Charter School (PIACS) for their alleged use of public funds to seek ways of blocking the school from opening.

“The issue upon which both PIACS and respondents base their motions for summary decision is whether the respondent boards of education may pay attorneys to oppose the establishment of a charter school,” wrote Administrative Law Judge Lisa James-Beavers in the case against the Princeton Regional Regional School Board (PRS), the Board of Education of South Brunswick Township, and the Board of Education of the West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional School District. “I am granting the respondents’ motion and denying that of PIACS,” Ms. James-Beavers continued. “Respondents have discretionary authority to perform all acts and do all things, consistent with law and the rules of state board, necessary for the lawful and proper conduct, equipment, and maintenance of the public schools of the district.”

The school boards were represented by David W. Carroll of Parker McCay; Thomas A. Abbate, of Decotiis, Fitzpatrick and Cole, represented PIACS.

“We are pleased with the judge’s clear decision and are confident that the Commissioner will fully endorse it,” said Princeton School District Superintendent Judy Wilson. The state Commissioner of Education has final authority on granting or rejecting charter school applications.

“We have consistently opposed the establishment of a new charter school because it will irreparably harm the finances of the district — possibly leading to higher taxes on residents and fewer educational opportunities for our students — by drawing outsized sums to educate a small group who would otherwise attend our excellent public schools at a far lower cost due to economies of scale,” said Board of Education President Rebecca Cox. Echoing Ms. Wilson’s sentiments, she noted that “We are pleased with the judge’s decision that the lawsuit was without merit and await the acting Commissioner of Education’s final decision to accept, amend or deny the judge’s ruling.”

Ms. Cox noted that under the case’s statement of facts, “PRS objected to the PIACS opening (application filed October 2009) before they were given fast-track approval by the Department of Education (DoE) on January 11, 2010. This was within the 60-day time frame permitted to us by the DoE.

“The speed of the approval was, in my opinion, a clear indication that the objections of the local districts were not given full and thorough consideration by the Department of Education,” continued Ms. Cox. “I point this out to clarify Mr. Block’s [PIACS spokesperson Parker Block] repeated assertion that the districts had not objected to their application before the South Brunswick zoning board meetings.”

In her decision, Ms. James-Beaver also noted that “Board members must be mindful that charter schools are public schools and should not refer to them as ‘quasi-private,‘ since they are not.”

“While PIACS was disappointed in today’s decision, we are confident in our position that the expenditure of over $100,000 in public funds to oppose a charter school approved by the Commissioner of Education is wrong and that our position will be vindicated on appeal,” said Mr. Abbate.

“We are determined to overcome this obstacle and open the school, which will benefit students from the Princeton Regional, West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional and South Brunswick School Districts,” he added. “As such, we are pressing forward with our plans, as the State has granted us permission to do.”

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