The Board of Trustees of Princeton Charter School petitioned the New Jersey Department of Education on Thursday to implement a weighted lottery that would give a 2-to-1 advantage to economically disadvantaged students. The school also has asked for permission to add an extra class for grades K-2. The expansion would add 76 new seats at the K-8 school, which is currently authorized to educate 348 children.
Superintendent of Schools Steve Cochrane issued a statement on Thursday saying the move would drain more funds from the Princeton Public Schools. He estimated that the charter school’s expansion would cost the district $1.4 million a year, and called for the charter school to consolidate with the district as enrollment climbs due to new housing developments like AvalonBay and Merwick-Stanworth.
Paul Josephson, president of the charter school’s board of trustees, said the school’s expansion would alleviate some of the district’s enrollment spike issues and criticized Cochrane for issuing a statement before reviewing the school’s application.
“We appreciate that Superintendent Cochrane agrees that Princeton Charter is an important part of Princeton’s public education system, and that PCS should play an important role in alleviating the fiscal stress the recent enrollment spike will impose on all Princeton taxpayers,” he said. “As he notes, working together we can alleviate all district space needs.”
Josephson said school officials look forward to discussing how the charter school and the Princeton Public Schools can work together to continue providing great public education options for all Princeton children at the lowest cost to taxpayers.
“It’s unfortunate that Mr. Cochrane decided to issue his statement before he received or we even filed our application. He took a position without even looking at the merits. Let’s also remember the district only identified the enrollment spike in August of this year, and has itself only started to discuss how it will meet those demands,” Josephson said. “Under state law, PCS cannot propose to expand its enrollment to serve the added demand without filing the application by December 1. Now that PCS has filed that application, we can engage in discussions and work with the district to figure out how PCS can be part of the solution.”
Josephson argued there is no financial loss to the Princeton Public Schools, but rather a savings of taxpayer dollars. He also said the Princeton Public School’s annual cost for the enrollment increase is not $1.4 million, which was Cochrane’s estimate for tuition and transportation costs combined.
“This is both factually inaccurate, as the payment to PCS is about $1.1 million, and misleading,” he said. “Our public schools must pay for educating our students, regardless of whether they attend Charter or any of the other public schools in our district.”
Josephson said the charter school educates 8.8 percent of the district’s students for 5.5 percent of the total budget. The charter school spends $15,300 per student, while the district spends $24,000 per student. Expanding the charter school to educate an extra 76 students represents an annual savings of $8,700 per student, for a total of $661,200 in savings to the taxpayers of Princeton, he said.
Cochrane said in his statement on Thursday that the district has fixed costs that are not based on the number of students in a classroom. The district’s class sizes in kindergarten may drop by one or two students, but the changes would not reduce grade populations to the point where the district needs fewer teachers or staff, or less building space. The largest overcrowding issues are at the high school, he said.
Josephson claimed that Cochrane’s conclusion that the Princeton Public Schools will not realize cost savings because of fixed is incorrect.
“Due to the increased number of students in town, PCS is not taking away, children from the other PPS schools, but rather is offering additional openings to meet the increased need for education in our community at a significantly reduced cost,” Josephson said.
“It is plain that the enrollment spike is affecting all grades at PPS, not just the high school, and the district needs both space and new teachers to accommodate it,” he said. “It will continue to grow in the coming months, and will not leave PPS with underemployed teachers or too small classes.”
Josephson cited the following statistics reviewed by the school board in August:
• 88% of the current year increase in PPS enrollment is in K-8 (145 of 163, and 103 of them are in K-5)
• 65% of this increase in enrollment is from Merwick-Stanworth, Avalon Bay, and Copperwood – but less than 1/3 of the Merwick – Stanworth units were occupied in September, and only 10 percent of those in AvalonBay – suggesting we can expect at least another 200 or more new students by next fall as those units are fully occupied.
“Mr. Cochrane stated just in October that to accommodate the growth, the district needs both new space and new teachers,” Josephson said. “Because of far lower overhead, salary cost, and higher teacher contributions towards benefits costs, PCS costs are much lower than those of the district. PCS can much more efficiently serve a significant portion of the new demand.”
Josephson added that the charter school’s expansion plans would have no impact on district transportation costs.
“Any children, including the additional children, have to be bused at district expense by law whether they attend the Princeton Public Schools or Princeton Charter School,” he said. “No additional buses or routes will be needed to serve any new Princeton Charter School students. Most important, the district is already compensated by the state for Princeton Charter School bus service.”
Josephson said the state charter school funding law holds back 10 percent of the district’s per pupil expenditure that would otherwise go to Princeton Charter School for the express purpose of paying for charter student busing and the other fixed district costs. The district retains $500,000 that should otherwise follow the child who enrolls at Princeton charter school, and the Princeton Public Schools would retain another $100,000 that should otherwise follow the children if the expansion is approved, he said.
“That is the deal districts struck when the charter law was passed. It’s just plain wrong to complain now that it costs them more when they are already compensated by law for the fixed stranded costs when a child moves to the Princeton Charter School,” he said.
Josephson said, however, that charter school officials are encouraged that Cochrane agrees that working together, PPS and PCS can solve the space needs for the long term.
“We have invited Mr. Cochrane to meet for just that purpose,” he said.
Charter school officials said the school’s goals include increasing access for economically disadvantaged students, establishing kindergarten as the starting point for all students, and helping address the unanticipated spike in public school demand in Princeton.
“The timing now is perfect for Princeton Charter School to expand and to develop a plan to serve more economically disadvantaged students,” said Head of School Larry Patton. “The New Jersey Department of Education approved weighted lotteries in December 2015 and the town is experiencing a significant spike in enrollment due to new residential developments coming online.”
Josephson called the plan a win-win for all Princeton taxpayers.
“We can address a recent spike in local enrollment due to new housing developments,” he said. “At the same time, we can improve access to a top notch, vigorous curriculum for all regardless of means by giving families who qualify for free and reduced lunch a much greater chance of being selected through the lottery.”
Charter School officials said the school is committed to closing the achievement gap for all students.
“PCS’s mission includes a directive to address the fact that socioeconomic differences contribute to an achievement gap among economically disadvantaged students,” said Amanda Rose, vice-president of the board of trustees. “The school’s founders, all parents and teachers from Princeton, were adamant that choice in education should not be limited to those with the financial resources to pay for private school.”
Josephson said that despite extensive community outreach, school officials recognize that economically disadvantaged families have been underrepresented in the school compared to Princeton as a whole. Officials hope the weighted lottery will change that.
“Consistent with our mission to address the fact that socioeconomic differences contribute to an achievement gap, and our obligation to seek the enrollment of a cross section of the community to the maximum extent practical, we developed this proposal to address this disparity,” he said.
If the charter school expansion is approved by the state, the implementation would be phased in over two years.The school would implement the weighted lottery in spring 2017 and expand the kindergarten and first grade classes for the 2017-18 academic year, adding the second grade expansion in the 2018-19 academic year. Instead of the 19 spots presently available in kindergarten, the school expects to offer 30 seats.
Increased enrollment would allow the school to fund additional support services for all students, whether they be classified as English language learners, are receiving special education services, or are in need of some additional help to succeed at the highest levels. School officials are currently exploring the development of personalized student plans for entering students to assess each student’s needs and family resources to ensure that the school is providing appropriate support services for each student who enrolls.
The school begins its study of world language in kindergarten, a core element of its charter. Students currently learn French, but the school is considering adding Spanish as well.
Princeton Charter School’s charter was granted in 1997. It was one of the original charter schools in New Jersey. Its lottery is highly competitive, with more than 70 applicants seeking 19 new kindergarten seats each year. The board consists of nine parents elected by the parents and guardians of students enrolled in the school. Its charter was renewed earlier in 2016 for five years.
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