Planet Princeton

Princeton Public Schools Sues Charter School, Claiming Sunshine Law Violations

The Princeton Public Schools has filed a lawsuit against the Princeton Charter School in Mercer County Superior Court claiming that the charter school violated the Open Public Meetings Act, commonly known as the Sunshine Law, when the charter school’s trustees voted last month to seek an amendment to the charter and increase enrollment.

The Princeton Public Schools Board of Education is seeking an order from the courts voiding the charter school’s action as a result of  the alleged violations.

“While the Princeton Public Schools believes that this action is necessary to protect the taxpayers and the school district, it remains willing to work with the Princeton Charter School to find a way to creatively and amicably resolve any issues between the parties in the best interests of the students and taxpayers,” reads a statement from the school district’s lawyer.

“I continue to believe that honest, open, and creative conversation with the Princeton Charter School is the surest path towards positive resolution. We are pursuing that,” Superintendent of Schools Steve Cochrane told Planet Princeton. “Nevertheless, the board and I feel a duty to also pursue all legal avenues to protect the financial and educational interests of the district.”

The school board contends that the charter school did not comply with the Open Public Meetings Act when it took action to pass the resolution on Nov. 28 to amend the school’s charter and increase its enrollment by 76 students.

“In essence we are claiming that the community was not properly informed that the PCS Trustees were intending to take action to approve an application to increase the school’s enrollment, and that as a result, the court should invalidate that action,” Cochrane said.

Princeton Charter School Board of Trustees President Paul Josephson said the school received the legal papers today and is reviewing them with lawyers.
“We will respond in due course in the appropriate forum but are confident the district is not entitled to the relief it seeks,” Josephson said.
“It is disappointing that the PPS Board is wasting taxpayer dollars on a nuisance lawsuit to harass a public charter school and its families,” Josephson said. “The Princeton Charter School has done everything required of it to provide adequate notice and public engagement. Unfortunately, PPS is waging a one-sided campaign to attack a fellow public school, its students and families, and the many Princeton taxpayers who support the charter school. We welcome the chance to talk, but its hard to do when we are being sued and subject to a zealous misinformation campaign about our plans. Our community deserves better from its school board and the board’s self appointed expert.”

If the charter school’s application with the state to increase enrollment and use a weighted lottery system that gives lower income students more chances in the lottery is rejected because of the alleged violations, the charter school could be required to wait until 2018 to reapply. A new administration at the state level would likely not be as supportive of charter schools, thus increasing the chances that the expansion application would be rejected. The delay would also give the school district an additional year before more of its revenue must be paid to the charter school.

Krystal Knapp

Krystal Knapp is the founding editor of Planet Princeton. She can be reached via email at editor AT planetprinceton.com. Send all letters to the editor and press releases to that email address.

  • Jujubees

    *Couldn’t care less lol

  • Liz Winslow

    Hi resident – first, thank you for your civil tone. Given school pickup is coming I may not be as detailed as I should, but let me take a whack at this.

    1) PCS does not have a pool or athletic fields (or, ahem, turf ones at that). It absolutely does have music and theater. And nobody, myself included, is arguing that it doesn’t cost more to educate 9-12 than it does K-8. So we’re in agreement there.

    2) This is true. However, it is not true that the expansion would result in a loss to PPS, because of the simple fact that with population increasing, ratables are going up. That is the point of the expansion; to accommodate more students in an environment of rising enrollment, and correspondingly higher taxes.

    3) I did that because a common refrain for years has been that per-student education costs are not apples-to-apples as PCS has many fewer special ed students, and few to no ELLs. So I stripped out full time special ed students from the numerator, and special ed and bilingual costs from the denominator (I have no way to strip out ELL students from the numerator, and that actually makes the math work in PPS’s favor – more students, less money). So that was to get an apples-to-apples comparison for an “average” student. While again nobody disputes that 9-12 education costs more, a difference of $12k/student smoothed out over the entire district is, in my estimation, egregious and evidence of dire mismanagement.

    4) PCS has reworked the lottery so it is giving the disadvantaged applicants a double weight. PCS really does try to listen and collaborate, and here is evidence that it does.

    5) If you compare the MSGPs for PCS vs. the four PPS elementaries (available in the 12/30 edition of the Princeton Packet), it is breathtaking the amount of work PPS needs to do in educating its elementary students. And really, the only thing PCS lacks that a traditional elementary school has is a school library – arguably no need given a fine town library and plenty of books in every classroom. So the comparison here truly is between elementary and elementary, and whether it’s MSGPs, standardized test scores (which must be higher than the sending district’s, or the charter would be revoked), parent satisfaction, student satisfaction, the oversubscribed lottery, the waitlist… there is something in the sauce at PCS that PPS might want to pay attention to. If nobody wanted in to PCS, it wouldn’t exist. If an unmet demand wouldn’t exist, the expansion (accounting for about 1% of PPS’s budget, btw) would be a nothingburger, as nobody would go.

    One of the arguments made is that the extra remittance would chew up all of the coming property tax increase. What a world we live in when it’s a given that our property taxes will go up by 2% a year, every year, for a district with about 3700 students and a $95 million budget. This simply fails the sniff test.

    Happy to continue the discussion later, with fewer kids on my hands 🙂

  • resident

    It’s still not apples to apples for a couple of reasons.

    1) By design, charter schools are not like ‘traditional’ schools, right? If PCS wanted to simply replicate PPS, they would never have received their charter. Instead, by design, they operate differently. In this case, it means PCS doesn’t maintain a swimming pool, a large traditional theater space, music and chorus as part of the curriculum – and tell me if I have any of that wrong…..this isn’t a criticism mind you. The PCS set out to create a school that was DIFFERENT by design, so of course there will be fundamental cost differences between the two institutions. (Additionally, if I understand you comments correctly, you were examining the whole PPS operating budget, which includes PHS, which has dozens and dozens of additional programs and facilities that make the comparison pointless.

    2) The PPS doesn’t operate on a per pupil budget. It receives X dollars a year to educate Y students. If in any given year, Y changes, the per public cost is going to fluctuate for better or worse.

    3) Why would you strip special ed students from the denominator and the numerator? There is no income to PPS associated with any student’s attendance.

    4) PCS itself admits it is not reaching the lower income families in our community. These families typically are harder to educate, and will demand greater resources.

    5) The simple scope and size of the two institutions are not comparable. PCS has 350 kids? PPS 3,400? Something like that, right? PCS, one campus, PPS, 6. They are just two totally different things….and again, that is the point of the charter school, right? They WANTED to create something smaller, more personalized, more focused….and logically, that is going to cost a lot less than a full scale ‘traditional’ school system with all the trappings.

    By all means, argue for charters, argue against them, whatever you want….but I just don’t think the whole ‘gee whizz…PCS is so much more cost effective….’ is a real point.

  • CharterMom

    Let’s face it, the PPS school board does what it wants, when it wants, regardless of whether it’s members are voted for by the residents of Princeton. Once elected, they just join the fold and the rampant spending for which the PPS district has a long history.

  • CharterMom

    Nope. As long as the PPS Board can raise our taxes by 2% per year without a vote and get waivers to raise taxes, again without a popular vote…you are wrong.

  • CharterMom

    I can’t vote in any board since I am not an elected member of either. Regardless of whether I can vote for the PPS board in the election, the PPS Board does what it wants in terms of increasing our taxes over and over again, without a popular vote on those increases. PPS’s overspending amounts to egregious fiscal irresponsibility. Once the PPS Board puts its budget decisions back on for popular vote, you might have an argument about not having a say…at this point, you don’t.

  • resident

    Then you should vote in a board that reflects your views. You have that right and ability. Likewise, I think PCS should not be trying to expand. But alas, I have no ability to vote in a board that reflects my views because I can not vote on PCS controlling body.

  • CharterMom

    i don’t see why you think voting on the PCS school board is appropriate to resolve the issue here. PPS does not have to go to the voters every year when they raise their budget and our taxes by 2% and PPS also doesn’t have to obtain voter approval for tax increase via waivers (over and above the 2%), which they did last year to the tune of 1.7 million additional tax dollars. At least the PCS expansion isn’t going to cost the tax payers any money (it will be paid for entirely by PCS either through their current budget or a bond/financing that will be paid by their current budget) – no additional taxes, bonds will be paying for the PCS expansion. Unlike the construction that was threatened by PPS in its last school board meeting.

  • FreshAir

    An example of a nice solution to expansion needs happened recently in the Princeton Shopping Center’s parking lot. With no expansion whatsoever, management reworked the existing space, changed the pattern & quickly made room for more users. Our schools already have the space for more students. What they lack is creativity & wisdom. There is absolutely no crisis or need to push any expansion through quickly. What some people call a “surge” in enrollment is actually fewer students than predicted,

  • FreshAir

    excellent & true point about the School Board’s power. They have changed the demographics for homeownership here with endless increases, in a very short period of time. They know not what they do,

  • CharterMom

    See above

  • CharterMom

    It doesn’t matter that I get to vote for the pps School board. The pps board does what it wants when it wants without any vote by the public. It gets to raise all of our taxes without a vote by 2% a year and then recently got approval to raise our taxes by waiver, with no public vote to approve it, by another 1.7 million. At least PCS operates at a flat budget and any past or planned building has and will be paid through Pcs’s flat budget and does not raise taxes in town at all. That, is the difference and frankly an egregious one at that! I say PPS spending is rampant and ever increasing and we need to get the PPS budget back on for a vote every year to stop the madness.

  • FreshAir

    excellent point!

  • PrettySmart1

    The request is itself sowing divisiveness, for all of the reasons already stated below.

  • Wendy

    Sadly, we don’t get to vote on this issue. The decision lies solely in the hands of the Commissioner of Education who is appointed by the Governor. Additionally the current commissioner is “acting” so she has no long term skin in the game. I encourage everyone to let their voice be heard. Tell our legislators we need them to oppose this expansion and to put pressure on the Commissioner to deny the Charter School request.

    1) Senator Christopher Bateman: (908) 526-3600
    SenBateman@njleg.org

    2) Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli: (908) 450-7064
    AsmCiattarelli@njleg.org

    3) Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker: (609) 454-3147
    AsmZwicker@njleg.org

    4) Kimberley Harrington, Department of Education, 100 Riverview Plaza, Trenton, NJ 08625

  • resident

    The difference is, you get to vote on the governing body of PPS. You get to vote on the Board of Education. Through that vote, you get some level of say in how PPS spends your tax dollars. As a resident with no kids at PCS, I can not vote on how that public institution conducts it’s business with my tax dollars.

  • Liz Winslow

    I’m not sure I follow how your assertion it’s a boutique. PCS is a public school that also “must take all comers” up to its capacity, with students chosen by anonymous lottery. The discussion is about whether that capacity should be increased, especially given the increase in K-5 students locally, not about sowing yet more divisiveness.

  • Princeton resident

    voting for PPS board members and for PPS referendums IS having a say. that is the difference.

  • PrettySmart1

    PCS is a boutique which has no reason to cooperate with PPS to address the newly expanded student body. PPS must take all comers, PCS can just swan along criticizing PPS from on high.

  • PrettySmart1

    Seriously, no, it does not.

  • CharterMom

    See my comment above!

  • CharterMom

    My kids don’t go to PPS. The PPS school board has voted for tax waivers without a vote by the general public (to the tune of 1.7 million dollars over the 2% tax increase every year) So I am paying for an institution that I have no say in and do not benefit from. What’s the difference?

  • CharterMom

    Well said, Liz!

  • Jian Chen

    The incoming surge in student enrollment is the result of two housing development projects that broke ground many years ago. I’d like to see PPS presenting to the public its plan to address the problem rather than wasting taxpayers’ money suing PCS which is offering a sensible and economical solution.

  • resident

    My point was you – like every other citizen in town, wether they send kids to the school or not – has a say in how the school is governed through your vote in on the school board. I can not vote on your school board so have no say in the governance of the public service I pay for. That is fundamentally unfair.

  • Liz Winslow

    Does it not occur to you that my tax dollars are going to a school my kids are not attending?

  • resident

    So my tax dollars go to a school I have no say in what so ever. I have no kids at PCS, so I am paying for an institution that I have no say in, and no benefit from. As a PCS parent, you have the benefit of voting in the controlling entity for your child’s school AND voting on the controlling entity of the larger PPS. Doesn’t strike me as fair at all.

  • FreshAir

    There are larger matters, like physical space to educate kids & spending, that both entities impact… so there must be some way taxpayers can demand that PCS & PPS discuss plans well in advance & cooperate. If there isn’t, then we are a truly fractured community with no hope. Dramatic reveals, whining about cash, & fighting aren’t OK.

  • Scott

    Hmm. At least I don’t have a monopoly on being condescending.

  • FreshAir

    Be real. Elections in Princeton are a joke, since so few people run. Year after year there’s no or not enough choice for key positions. Since, the pool of genuinely qualified applicants is so small, some who aren’t truly qualified are elected into very powerful posts every year. They then get to make very critical decisions that impact us all.
    The costs paid by Princeton taxpayers to fund the basics have become much higher than those in other school districts, despite the massive amounts already spent. Fueled by our plutocracy’s high ideals, & higher paychecks than acceptable for the mediocre, our schools’ current struggles have become dramatic, unexplainable, and embarrassing. They are struggles made internally in these boards/school system, since taxpayers have given these administrators endless money, power & carte blanche. Face it, they’re failing us.
    The last two taxpayer funded forays coming out of PPS are ridiculous… and the result of poor management in both PPS & PCS.

  • Joe

    Your comments illustrate the fact that charter schools are like separate school districts unto themselves. By their very design, charter schools are not meant to cooperate with the district schools. Remember, charter schools are specifically designed to compete wth the district schools NOT cooperate with them. You constantly hear charter school cheerleaders knocking and demeaning the district schools. How the hell can you have cooperation when someone is flinging mud in your face?

  • FreshAir

    Regardless of which educational model or models a Princeton taxpayer personally supports, the matter of school expansion in Princeton brings to light the enormous power very small groups of people have to make very costly decisions and/or decisions that have enormous impact on the future of our town.
    That those small groups foster their ideas behind closed doors, can push them through in small meetings, & further impact Princeton’s already hefty, unbalanced tax scale is a valid concern. So, I think your points touch on the heart of the matter & a reason for concern for many who dwell here.
    Now here, the Charter school will always be here… it’s not going away. So, Charter supporters can relax about its existence.
    The real issues on the table are communication, economic viability, & professional accountability, regardless of which model one supports.
    The continuing drama coming out of PPS & PCS are displays of the weak skills of those at the helm. These Boards have been given more power & cash than most, aren’t skilled professionally, & are failing taxpayers.

  • Liz Winslow

    The PCS Board is elected by PCS parents. It’s not a private school. “Riff raff” is deliberately condescending. And newsflash: the PCS board can’t vote for tax increases on Princeton. This. costs. Princeton. nothing. The burden should be on PPS to explain why they can’t function on $95mm a year for 3700 students, not why 76 students in an environment of rising enrollment and taxes is a catastrophe. The phrase “scapegoat” comes to mind.

  • Fezziwig

    Amen, brother.

  • Scott

    A truly ridiculous comment. The PPS School Board is duly elected by the people of this town. That’s how our form of government works. We don’t vote on every decision they make. We vote for representatives to make those decisions, which the School Board does. Now…who voted for the PCS board?

    If people want to send their kids to a private school so they don’t have to mix with the kids they perceive as riff-raff, then that is their right. But don’t establish a quasi-private school, populated disproportionately by people of means, and then scream and cry when citizens don’t want taxpayer money pulled away from public schools to pay for it.

  • Liz Winslow

    I think it’s pretty dang unfair that I don’t get to vote every time the PPS School Board votes a tax increase – don’t you? Why don’t you start complaining about that first, since it costs you money, as opposed to PCS, which costs you nothing?

    As far as administrative… go look at all of the publicly available pay data for PPS and PCS employees. I think you’ll find you are massively incorrect on duplication/expenditures. PCS has a head of school, same as any school would have a principal. They don’t have vice superintendents for curriculum, bookkeepers that cost $181k/year, and other assorted nonsense that sends PPS’s admin costs into the stratosphere.

  • Liz Winslow

    So your argument boils down to not liking some of the founders and freaking out that teachers’ unions might not get everything they want? Seriously?

  • Liz Winslow

    That’s not true at all. The money follows the child, and not even all of the money – the sending district keeps a good portion for overhead. It is a public school open to all children who live in the district, so it’s absolutely NOT privatization.

  • Liz Winslow

    Hi lbzlittle – rebuttals are in a few places. First, Larry Patton (head of PCS) wrote a detailed one in the Princeton Packet this week. Second, I am an accountant by training and spent many hours with the audited financials of PPS, as I was tired of hearing the canard that cost per pupil was not apples to apples. Stripping out full time special ed students and PCS students from BOTH the numerator and denominator (something JSR did not do), along with the cost of bilingual ed, results in a whopping cost of $27,000 per student, spread across the district, that PPS is spending. It’s madness. It’s also a long calculation, so I leave it to Krystal if she’d like it from me to fact-check and post before I post a multi-page long comment.

    The Packet article posts the MSGPs as well, and it’s breathtaking how terribly some of PPS’s elementaries are doing. Given that PPS remits less to PCS (and ratables will be going up with development) than in its debt service every year (which it wants to increase), I’m surprised parents aren’t at school board meetings demanding to know why their children’s progress is so shoddy.

    Also keep in mind that JSR is the ultimate person with an ax to grind – brought up on ethics charges for misusing her Rutgers position to further her anti-Charter crusade, and even better, organizing her movement *while her own daughter attended PCS.* It’s not an ad hominem if it goes directly to the credibility of the argument being made.

    But yes, a nuisance lawsuit – one more brilliant, mature, well-reasoned use of taxpayer dollars. It’s almost like PPS sees itself as a club/employment agency than as a custodian of taxpayer money, isn’t it?

  • FreshAir

    All who want to believe there are professionals at the helm of this Titanic, please take note… it’s time to cut the engines. A moratorium on physical expansion for education in Princeton is needed until analyses of 1) demographics, 2) the current uses of our super-sized school budget, & 3) tally of every square foot of educational space available in Princeton are complete. The facts need to be known in these three areas. Plans & decisions need to be fact based.

    Yes, our Charter, was born, welcomed into the world, placed in an incubator, then nurtured. That has nothing to do with the fact that a current lack of collaboration amongst Princeton’s school system managers/administrators exists & is very unprofessional . The absence of adequate public notice, open meetings, & public comment periods, within our well funded school system, is frightening. Now, PPS has launched a lawsuit…like one between spoiled, whining siblings fighting over their inheritance. It’s another embarrassment we all must bear & fund, a steady hands at the helm are lacking in PPS & PCS

    PPS or Charter… most could care less. Taxpayers funding education in this town just deserve better.

  • lbzlittle1

    What does charter gain by expanding this year versus the next? Princeton residents need unpoliticized information and time to judge whether expansion is good for the community. Where can I find detailed rebuttals to Julia Sass Rubins financial analysis for PPS? If this is misinformation, why can’t I find reasoned counter arguments? Barring open dialogue, the proposal should be delayed.

  • Kathy Taylor

    But PPS does object the Charter’s proposed expansion, and for lots of good reasons. Charter’s claim that this is a “win-win” proposal for both PPS and the Charter can’t be taken seriously when the Board and Superintendent of PPS claim otherwise. Inadequate notice was given to the Princeton community of this expansion proposal, which would be up for consideration in only three months time, despite the fact that it would adversely affect PPS, AND the taxpayers of Princeton without their voting approval. Good for PPS for filing this lawsuit.

  • Joe

    Not to mention, that all the residents/tax payers do not get to vote on the charter school board of directors. How is that fair? The school board of Princeton public schools is an elected school board. Why do we need a parallel school system that duplicates many of the administrative positions?

  • Princeton resident

    we should have a say in the voting booth!

  • Paul Josephson

    In NJ districts have the right to comment on charter applications and renewals. PPS endorsed the PCS original charter application in 1997 and has not since objected to renewal of the charter.

  • PrettySmart1

    Princeton does not need a charter school (to put it mildly). PCS was formed by a group of conservative parents who objected to what they viewed as the public schools’ excessive focus on peace, justice, good character, and other issues these parents thought were irrelevant and/or better taught in church. The Christie administration also favors charter schools as a means to hurt teachers and the teacher’s union. Charter schools can be formed without the consent of the local community in only two States, and New Jersey is, unfortunately, one of them.

  • Robert Dana

    A lawsuit? Is the PPS serious? On such a seemingly trivial issue – assuming its claim is valid. And if valid, can’t the Charter School simply cure the defect?

    Resorting to costly litigation? What a misallocation of funds.

    I don’t think the PPS is teaching the children of Princeton a very good lesson.

  • I had to lookup the definition of charter school. It’s an example of public asset privatization. Why does Princeton need a charter school?

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