Superintendent of Schools Stephen Cochrane said today that the Princeton Public Schools would lose almost $1.4 million in funding each school year if the Princeton Charter School expands.
Charter School officials announced on Tuesday that the school wants to add three more classrooms and double the size of the K-2 student body. The school currently educates 348 students in grades K-8, and receives four times more applicants than available slots.
Overall, the charter school plans to add 76 pupils to the student body for a total of 424 students, Head of School Lawrence Patton said. Grades K-2 would increase by 62 students combined, and the school would add another two students per grade in grades 3-8, for a total of 12 more students in the upper grades combined.
The school would use its capital and endowment fund to pay for additional classrooms and an expanded cafeteria.
The State of New Jersey must grant permission for the school to change its charter and accept more students in kindergarten and first grade. Currently the school accepts about half of its students in the third grade. The school also wants permission to use a weighted lottery that would allow officials to give an extra chance for admission to students who qualify as economically disadvantaged.
Cochrane said the district plans to weigh in on the proposal with the state Department of Education. Princeton Public Schools officials said they were caught off guard Tuesday by the announcement about the expansion.
“The suddenly announced proposal by the Princeton Charter School’s board of trustees to expand its enrollment by 76 students would, if approved by the NJDOE, result in an annual loss to the Princeton Public School district of $1.38 million for both tuition and transportation,” Cochrane said. “This amount would be in addition to the $5.05 million the district is already obligated to pay PCS annually. A financial loss of this magnitude would not be offset in any way by additional aid from the state.”
Cochrane said the financial loss would erase nearly all of the $1.4 million increase in the school district’s tax levy for next year.
“This proposal, if approved, will leave the district with less money to educate the 3,700 students in our schools – even as the needs and numbers of those students continue to rise,” Cochrane said. “It will, if approved, compromise the quality of our students’ education.”
Some parents and officials have argued that the the charter school’s expansion would save the school district money, because the charter school’s per pupil cost is just under $15,000 while the school district’s per pupil cost is over $24,000.
“Contrary to what some have claimed, under no scenario would the PCS Trustees’ proposed expansion save our taxpayers money,” Cochrane said. “While the district would have to pay PCS an additional $1.16 million in tuition annually for the additional 76 students who transfer there, the district will not realize any cost savings. Why? Because the school district operates on an economy of scale, and most of its costs are fixed, not variable.”
Cochrane said as an example, the district has 220 students in kindergarten. The students are spread out across 13 classrooms in four elementary schools.
“If 21 of those students go to PCS next year as proposed, the district’s class sizes in kindergarten may drop by one or two students, but we will not reduce grade populations to the point where we need fewer teachers or staff, or less building space,” Cochrane said. “The transfer of those 21 kindergarteners would, however, require the district, under the state aid guidelines, to give the Princeton Charter School more than $320,000 in tuition — the approximate cost of four teachers with salaries and benefits. And, given the trustees’ proposal, the same economy of scale and the same loss of tuition would play out for grades one and two.”
Cochrane also said the charter school’s expansion would not alleviate the district’s rising enrollment issues. The proposed transfer of 76 students to PCS, mostly in grades K-2, would not lessen total enrollment at any grade level enough to allow the district to reduce the number of class sections, Cochrane said.
“The greatest squeeze for space is, and will continue to be, at Princeton High School,” Cochrane said. “The trustees’ proposal not only offers no relief for that, but leaves the district with even less money to maintain its programs, staffing levels and class sizes there. Since the vast majority of PCS students matriculate to Princeton High School, the trustees’ proposal is contrary to the longer-term interests of the PCS students and families that the trustees serve, as it would drain funds from their future high school.”
Cochrane said in a town that values cutting-edge public schools, instead of expanding the charter school, the district should work with the school to consolidate the two separate districts.
“The trustees’ proposal puts the Princeton Public Schools and the Princeton Charter School at cross purposes. It takes from one to enhance the other,” he said.
Consolidating would save money and serve all students far better while also alleviating the district’s space needs for years to come, Cochrane said.
“We would welcome creative thinking about ways to combine our resources with those of the Princeton Charter School to increase our collective economy of scale and to enhance the learning for all the children in this community,” he said.
Editor’s Note: Planet Princeton has asked charter school officials to respond to Cochrane’s statement and we will be posting a follow-up story after officials have a chance to digest the statement and comment.