January 25, 2017

Council Votes Against Charter School Expansion

Before a standing-room-only crowd of more than 100 outspoken community members the Municipal Council voted 4-1 on Monday night to approve a resolution urging the State Department of Education to deny Princeton Charter School’s (PCS) recent application to expand.

In responding to a conflict between PCS and Princeton Public Schools (PPS) supporters, who have claimed devastating effects to their budget if the expansion is approved, the Council members discussed the issue at some length and listened to a range of opinions from the public before casting their votes on the resolution. 

Council member Jo Butler recused herself from the proceedings on the grounds that she works for a consulting firm that has been employed by PCS in the past. The lone nay vote was lodged by Bernie Miller, who proposed tabling the issue so the Council could fully examine the “unintended consequences” of breaking with precedent to interfere in the business of other institutions in the community.

The Council resolution will serve as a non-binding recommendation to Acting New Jersey Commissioner of Education Kimberley Harrington, who will make the final decision on the Charter School proposal, probably by early March.

Citing a significant potential impact on Princeton taxpayers if the expansion is approved, new Council President Jenny Crumiller stated, “I believe we have an obligation to do what we can. The Charter School expansion would have a negative effect on the rest of the community.” The issue of lack of local control of charter schools also concerned Ms. Crumiller, who cited the need to “have a hearing because people in town feel they have no other place to go.”

Lance Liverman, along with others on the Council, emphasized that his vote was “not against the Charter School. It’s about fairness in the community.” He predicted that in the current political climate more and more citizens will be turning to the local government for support in cases like this.

The Council members noted that they had received many compelling emails from constituents on both sides of the issue, though most in support of the Council resolution.

Council member Heather Howard noted the “tremendous pride” manifested in community support for both PPS and PCS, “How proud people are of our schools, how they want to maintain what is so great about our schools.” In response to Mr. Miller’s objections to the resolution, Ms. Howard added, “I’m comfortable with setting this precedent.” She cited similar recent actions by municipal councils in Highland Park, Montclair, and Red Bank, and expressed her concern over likely property tax increases or cuts in service in the wake of the Charter School expansion.

New council member Tim Quinn, who reported receiving 61 emails on the issue, stated that the Council hearing and resolution were a response to a constituent request, not to political pressure. He suggested consolidation of PPS and PCS as a viable solution to the current controversy and voiced his further support for the resolution. “I think this resolution is important,” he said, “because our constituents have no other outlet to have their opinions voiced to the state.”

Among the speakers addressing the Council were both Larry Patton, head of PCS, and Steve Cochrane, superintendent of PPS. Mr. Patton emphasized the negative impact on the Charter School if their request for expansion, 76 more students in grades 1-3, is denied.

He went on to note the importance of the Charter School over the past 20 years, “to give parents of Princeton a different option to provide a high quality education for their children.”

He disputed the contention that PCS expansion would financially devastate the District, noting how the District schools have grown and thrived over the past 20 years.

Mr. Cochrane, in supporting the Council resolution, declared the Charter School funding process “inherently undemocratic,” and claimed that the loss of $1.2 million if the expansion is approved would force the District to cut both teachers and programs.

“Losing that money each year would steadily erode the quality of education for all our students,” he said. “The proposal is economically and educationally unfair. It’s also undemocratic.”

In addition to the school leaders, parents and others on both sides of the controversy, including representatives of “Keep PPS Strong,” a recently-formed group opposing the Charter School expansion, spoke passionately in presenting their positions.

In response to the Council vote, PCS Board President Paul Josephson expressed his disappointment with the decision. He noted that it is unusual for a municipal council to oppose charter school amendment requests.

“I’m surprised that this council would act to alienate a large group of their own constituents,” he stated in a press release. “As far as the resolution itself, I think that the Council had no interest in looking at this issue objectively.” He went on to state that Council should have met with PCS to discuss the rationale behind the amendment request. PCS, he added “has been flat-funded and operating without a budget increase over the last eight years.”

School leaders continue to seek a resolution to the clash over PCS’s proposed expansion, and Mr. Josephson noted that two productive meetings between PCS and PPS had taken place in recent weeks.