The battle between the proposed Princeton International Academy Charter School and three area school districts escalated today as the school and parents who want to enroll their children there filed a complaint with the state claiming local school officials are interfering with the charter school opening.
Charter school leaders announced this morning that they filed a lawsuit against the Princeton Regional, West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional and South Brunswick school districts to stop officials from allegedly using their positions or school funds to oppose the opening of the charter school.
The complaint was filed directly with the state Department of Education. State law provides state agencies with the authority to rule on matters in which the parties in the complaint are both under the direction of the agency and the facts of the case are not in dispute.
Charter school leaders allege in the complaint filed today that the school districts have “vigorously opposed the efforts of PIACS and diverted tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars intended for the education of school children to pay for consultants and lawyers to oppose efforts to secure a facility in South Brunswick, the site of the planned school.”
Representatives of the charter school claim that while parental interest in the school is high, “the school districts have disseminated false and inflammatory statements about the charter school to the community and have pledged to use any available means to prevent PIACS from opening, all at taxpayer expense.”
PIACS wants to operate a charter school focused on Mandarin-English dual language immersion, an inquiry-based curriculum framework and Singapore-style math. The charter school plan was approved by the commissioner of the State Department of Education, but the opening of the school has been stalled twice by an inability to get zoning board approvals for a home for the school.
The suit alleges that the school districts are misspending public monies provided to them by the state and taxpayers for the purpose of running district schools, and that the schools are improperly using those funds and their status as public school officials to malign PIACS and serve as the catalyst to galvanize opposition to the proposed
The suit further alleges that these activities are an abuse of their school administration responsibilities, exceed their legal authority to operate the schools and educate the children, and violate a number of state law provisions that are intended to ensure financial and operational accountability of the school districts.
“For the past eighteen months, these school districts have been using public funds and their public educational positions to thwart the rights of the parents and the educational opportunities of their children,” said said Parker Block, a co-founder and Spokesman for PIACS.
“They had their say in the review process and they chose not to appeal the commissioner’s approval of the school,” Block said. “Now they are waging a guerrilla war financed by public dollars to fight PIACS and pick sides, favoring one set of public school children – those who will attend the traditional public schools – over another – those who want to attend the charter school. This is not only morally wrong, it is unlawful and against the public policy of this state.”
In addition to asking the State Commissioner of Education, who has legal oversight over the spending and educational practices of the school districts to stop the expenditure of public monies to oppose PIACS, the suit also requests other relief such as the appointment of a monitor to ensure that the districts are spending public funds in a lawful manner, a reduction in state aid to the districts in an amount equal to that spent to oppose PIACS, and an end to the dissemination of any school district-sponsored information opposing PIACS.
The suit, funded privately by school founders and parents, also seeks compensation by the districts to PIACS equal to the amount the school districts have spent for opposing PIACS and an accounting of all expenses and activities related to opposing the charter school. The suit asks that the school districts be instructed to drop their opposition to PIACS’ effort to secure a facility.
“We have seen overwhelming interest among local parents here, like others around the country, who understand that the global achievement gap is real,” said PIACS Board Chair Bonnie Lao. “The charter school law recognizes that parents can pursue high quality, innovative schools to improve educational outcomes for their children. This is true regardless of the socio-economic status of the community.”
The superintendents of the three school districts being sued issued a joint statement this afternoon saying the districts have acted on behalf of all children and taxpayers in reviewing and monitoring all charter school applications brought before them over the last several years, and that they will continue to do so.
“It is clearly the boards’ duty to not only be sound stewards of public funds but certainly to also ascertain and insure that children are traveling on safe bus routes, attending schools housed in suitable facilities with appropriate health and safety standards in place and being provided the promised curriculum,” the superintendents said in their joint statement.
In Mercer and Middlesex counties, and in the rest of the state and nation, there have been successful charters and failed charters. The superintendents argue that some of the failures would not have impacted children and taxpayers to the degree they have if all parties involved had held high standards in the preliminary stages prior to opening.
“As pertains to this particular petition, the boards are composed of 9 or 10 members, each of whom was elected by the voters, the superintendents’ statement reads. ” It is ironic that a private group of unelected and unaccountable individuals has initiated legal proceedings challenging the right of the boards to make decisions which the boards firmly believe are in the best interests of the districts and the taxpayers.”
The superintendents said it is ultimately up to the zoning board and the state Commissioner of Education to make a decision on final approval of this charter school, but that the boards have a right to be heard.
“The boards will not let this lawsuit or anything else silence that right,” the superintendents said. “The boards are fully behind and endorse all actions taken by their attorneys in representing the districts before both the commissioner and the zoning board, and in pending amicus litigation. We are confident that the boards’ legal authority to take these actions is well supported in law and that the current PIACS petition will ultimately be dismissed.”