February 15, 2017

As Dialogue Between PPS and PCS Dwindles, Final Decision May Be Left to State and Courts

As Princeton Charter School (PCS) awaits a decision from the State on its application to expand, both PCS and the Princeton Public Schools (PPS) face law suits in the state courts over violations of the open public meeting act (OPMA, the sunshine law).

The Charter School applied to the State Department of Education on December 1, 2016, requesting to add 76 students and to institute a weighted lottery to increase enrollment of economically disadvantaged students. The proposal set off immediate resistance from the PPS, which warned of severe financial consequences for the District. Controversy between the schools and within the community continues to seethe.

PPS has filed a lengthy formal objection to PCS expansion, and PCS has filed a rebuttal to that objection. The Princeton School Board has sued the Charter School Board for violation of the sunshine law when it took action to file its application for expansion. The Charter School Board has counter-sued, claiming that the PPS Board violated OPMA by holding an ”unlawful” closed session in December to plan opposition to the Charter School expansion. Charter School Board Chair Paul Josephson has claimed that the PPS suit was filed only to delay the New Jersey Education Commissioner’s decision on expansion of the Charter School and that the suit should be withdrawn.

Meanwhile, confidential discussions between PPS and PCS leaders have not taken place during the past two weeks, and though both sides claim to be seeking an amicable resolution to the conflict, positive communication between the two seems to be dwindling.

“I thought our last meeting was productive,” Mr. Josephson said. “We put some ideas on the table and we’re waiting to hear from them.”

PPS superintendent Steve Cochrane expressed optimism about the possibility of a compromise. There have been three meetings so far, but a fourth has not yet been scheduled. “The best resolution for the community will come from both sides working together,” Mr. Cochrane said. “That would be my hope. As we’re waiting for a legal decision, we’re hoping for a resolution that would be cost-effective for the community and educationally effective for the students. We’d like to have more meetings.”

Mr. Cochrane stated his view that the legal issues should be decided before a decision is made on the Charter School application. “There is a legal cloud of uncertainty, and we have asked the commissioner not to make a decision with that still in play. If the court voided the application or changed the numbers, children could start at one school and have to come back to another school.”

Mr. Josephson disagreed, contending that the legal response could come after the BOE decision on the application. Accusing PPS of intentionally delaying the proceedings, he noted that the District should have tried to get an expedited ruling from the court and that, in his opinion, “the DOE decision does not rest on that issue.”

In its February 10 document to the Commissioner of Education, PCS claimed, “PPS’s claims are rife with the same misleading arguments, misinformation, and erroneous data and statements of law that have been used to inflame public opposition.” The PCS letter goes on to “respectfully ask that the department recognize that the community opposition received is based on a campaign of disinformation against the proposed expansion by charter opponents.”

In another missive to the education commissioner, also dated February 10, the PCS lawyer replied to the PPS legal arguments. “PPS is trying to visit upon PCS a gross deprivation of due process by casting a cloud over the Amendment Application with erroneous and unproven OPMA claims while purposefully avoiding an OPMA decision on the merits before the Amendment Application is decided,” the letter stated.

Requesting that the commissioner approve the Charter School application, Montclair attorney Thomas O. Johnston’s letter continued, “This needless and pointless litigation is a waste of public monies of both parties, monies that should be spent on students and not attorneys.”