Reversing years of policy on the governing body’s involvement in public schools matters, the Princeton Council voted on Monday night to support a resolution opposing the expansion of the local charter school.
The council voted 4-1 to support the resolution opposing the expansion. More than 100 people attended the meeting. Councilwoman Jo Butler recused herself and did not participate in the discussion on the issue because she works for a firm that conducts head of school searches, and the firm has been hired by the charter school in the past.
Longtime Councilman Bernie Miller voted against the resolution even though he said he does not personally support the expansion because he feared that interfering in school affairs would set a bad precedent. In the past, the governing bodies of Princeton and the former Borough and Township have declined to vote on resolutions related to the schools or interfere with school issues. The fate of the old Valley Road School is one example in recent years. The council has also declined to weigh in on school tax increases or bond referendums.
“Princeton is a municipal corporation. It is not a collection of individuals expressing a statement,” Miller said. “The Princeton Public Schools is a chartered institution. We are about to interfere in the operation of another public corporation. We are opening the door to other public institutions coming back at a later date and interfering in the operations of the municipality. It’s a very bad precedent to set on our part and by doing so we are making ourselves vulnerable in the future.”
Miller proposed that the council pass a resolution calling on the New Jersey Department of Education to consider that the charter school’s application was submitted without public input and coordination with the public schools. He could not get a second.
I’ve received a million and a half emails about the charter school’s request to expand,” Council President Jenny Crumiller said. “I’ve given the issue a lot of thought. It’s important that we support the students and the taxpayers.”
Crumiller said charter school representatives asked to meet with the council but she “didn’t think it was going to happen.” The Friends of the Princeton Charter School, the PTO for the school, sent a letter to the council Monday afternoon asking for a meeting. A member of the Friends group also spoke during public comment requesting a meeting.
New Councilman Tim Quinn, a former school board president whose wife is a public schools teacher in Montgomery, said the council needed to act and be the voice of residents because the deadline for information to be sent to the Department of Education on the issue is Jan. 31. He also said during the discussion that he was mistaken at a previous council meeting when he said the school district would not need to pass a bond referendum to add more space if the charter school expansion is rejected and the charter school was ever merged with the Princeton Public Schools. A bond referendum will be needed no matter what happens, he said.
Councilman Lance Liverman said, referring to the public schools, that the charter school issue is “way above the their head.” He added that local government will need to be move involved in such issues in the future and called it “a sign of the times.”
Councilwoman Heather Howard said there is precedent for municipalities getting involved in charter school issue because the issue is tied to property taxes. Four municipalities have passed similar resolutions, including Red Bank, Highland Park and Montclair.
Audrey Chen from the Keep PPS Strong group thanked the council for supporting the resolution and said it was appropriate for the governing body to take a stand.
Lori Weir of Keep PPS Strong said a failure to support the resolution would be like giving tacit approval to the charter school’s expansion proposal.
Larry Patton, the head of the Princeton Charter School, said if the charter school is not allowed to expand it will not be able to meet some of it mission goals and may have to cut some programs. The school wants to add 76 students and the expansion would be phased in over two years, with 54 students being added the first year. He said the expansion will not financially devastate the public schools as has been claimed by charter school opponents. Taxes pass through the public schools on a per pupil basis, he said. “Charter school parents pay taxes just like all residents,” he said. Even as the charter school has expanded, the Princeton Public Schools have been able to add 130 full-time employees over the last 10 years even though the student population has only increased by 198 student over that period, he said. Asked if the school will still introduce a weighted lottery if the expansion request is not granted, Patton said the school would consider it.
“Charter school parents are also your constituents,” Patton said. “I’d ask you not to feed into the us versus them narrative. It will not be ruinous as it has been characterized.”
A handful of parents spoke for an against the expansion. One mother said the charter school had been a Godsend for her son after he struggled in math and was bullied at his elementary school even though he had thrived at a public school in Washington, D.C. Councilman Quinn said if the charter school has “some special sauce” to combat bullying, the charter school should share it with the district.
The mother said a proposal by Superintendent of Schools Steve Cochrane to merge the charter school with the public school and turn it into a magnet school would be elitist and said there is no academic threshold students must meet to go to the charter school. She and other charter school parents said the spike in anti-charter school rhetoric in town recently has caused charter school families to be subjected to hostility at every turn.
Resident Chris Hedges called charter schools a form of educational apartheid.
Resident Dana Molina said the community as a whole did not get to weigh in on the charter school’s plans and said the council is the community’s only representative to speak to the state Department of Education. “The majority of the community does not support the expansion,” she said.
Resident Jill Jachera questions whether the mayor and some council members had a conflict of interest on the issue. The mayor only votes in the case of a tie, but the mayor sets the council agenda.
“If I had been elected mayor and was sitting before you today, do you think it would be appropriate if I, a former charter school parent, introduced a resolution supporting the charter school’s proposed expansion? I doubt it,” Jachera said. “It is likewise inappropriate for this sitting mayor, who is a founder of Save Our Schools, the most aggressive anti-charter, anti-school choice organization in the state, to use her position to entertain the passing of a resolution which has a clearly personal agenda for her and other members of the council.”
Jachera said the council should limit its use of political power to matters that it is specifically prescribed to deal with “The residents of Princeton deserve a council that acts without bias and makes decisions that affect our community only after careful deliberations, not one that bows to political pressure and misuses its power to make a pointless political statement and further divide our community,” she said.
Councilwoman Heather Howard, who works for Princeton University yet has defended her right to discuss and vote on many university issues in the past, claimed that charges of conflict of interest are used for political reasons in Princeton.
“My son’s an eighth grader. Do I have a conflict of interest here?” Howard said rhetorically.
Superintendent of Schools Steve Cochrane said he is proud that the council was willing to take a stand and he thanked the council for showing strong civic leadership. “These are all our children,” he said. Cochrane said the district would lose $1.18 million in funding of 76 of its students go instead to the charter school. The amount is equivalent to 15 teachers and is more than the entire athletic program budget in the district, he said, adding that teachers and programs would have to be cut. The amount is also almost the enter two-percent cap that districts are allowed to increase taxes each year. Districts can get cap waivers for increases in health insurance and student enrollment, as Princeton did last year, and can bank the money to be used later).
Representatives from the charter school and the public schools have had two meetings behind closed doors to discuss the expansion and find a resolution to the conflict, school officials said Monday night.