The Princeton Charter School has sent a letter to New Jersey Education Commissioner Kimberly Harrington claiming that public schools officials and leaders of Save Our Schools New Jersey have waged a misinformation campaign designed to influence the state’s decision on the expansion of the school. They also argue that the expansion will not harm the public schools.
“Given the impact amounts to about one percent of a budget that already generously funds many nonessential programs, this is a greatly exaggerated claim — if not an outright misrepresentation of
the facts. In either event, this belief is not a valid basis to reject this application,” reads the letter. “It is well within the capacity of PPS to accommodate the proposed PCS expansion without harm to its current programs. PPS’s per pupil spending is far higher than comparable districts in the state.”
The Princeton Public Schools ranked 99 out 103 districts in its 2015-16 per-pupil budget ranking within its district factor group, according to the charter school. Only four districts in the group spend more — East Orange, Camden, Pleasantville City and Teaneck. Opponents of the expansion have claimed the district’s costs are higher because of other variables, including the percentage of special education students and English language learns it educates.
The charter school contends that its expansion can readily be absorbed by the district and that impact was contemplated by the Legislature as an appropriate allocation of resources to foster the policy goals of the Charter School Program Act. “PCS does not propose to expand its enrollment by drawing from a static public school population and budget, but rather from a growing population of students that already has and will continue to justify tax levy waivers for enrollment growth, and that district officials are planning to seek bond referenda to accommodate.”
In 2015, the Princeton Public Schools received approval to exceed the 2 percent cap by $1.7 million for enrollment growth and by another $400,000 for health care costs. PPS has implemented some $800,000 of that enrollment growth waiver, and retains another $900,000 banked. Charter school officials argue that significant enrollment growth of 10 percent or more beginning in 2016 will warrant further cap waivers.
“It is inherently contradictory for PPS officials to assert that there are such significant variable costs for increased enrollment to warrant a waiver of the 2-percent cap and at the same time to claim that there are little to no variable savings to the district for decreased enrollment if PCS is authorized to accept 76 additional students,” reads the letter. “It is also important to note that Princeton Charter School has expanded nine out of the last 20 years and that both school districts have thrived during that time: Princeton Charter School’s expansions have not prevented PPS from substantially increasing its programming offerings or led to any reductions in its faculty numbers over those two
The charter school claims that under the law, financial impact is only a basis for denying a charter application or amendment if it will threaten the ability of the district to provide its students with the constitutionally-mandated thorough and efficient education.
“At no point in the public debate has the district or any district official even suggested that this application will prevent or threaten the district’s ability to deliver a thorough and efficient education. Nor could they, without violating their ethical obligation under the School Ethics Act to supply the public with accurate information.”
The district’s school population will continue to grow as new apartment units come on line and other projects are built, charter school officials say.
“Given the impact of this significant influx of new students into local schools, this expansion request is ideally timed to assist the district in addressing these new needs at lower cost. Even if one were to accept the district’s claims to the contrary, it cannot be credibly concluded that this phenomenon will cause devastating financial harm to the PPS district,” reads the letter.
The nine-page letter was sent Tuesday, the same day the Princeton Public Schools filed a document opposing the school’s expansion. The charter school will file a formal rebuttal in the coming days.
“Since we filed our original application, district officials and others with substantial roles in founding and leading Save Our Schools New Jersey have waged a relentless campaign of misinformation designed to influence the NJDOE’s decision and create a divide within the Princeton community,” reads the letter.
The charter school wants to make kindergarten the main year of entry by adding a second class in kindergarten, first and second grades, and adding two students per grade in grades three through eight. School officials say this will provide more opportunities for disadvantaged students, a 2:1 weighted admissions lottery to promote socioeconomic diversity, and more support services for students.
“The proposed changes will not jeopardize the ability of one of the wealthiest districts in New Jersey to continue providing a thorough and efficient education, nor will it have a ‘devastating’ financial impact on Princeton Public Schools, especially given the sizeable school-aged population growth the town of Princeton is experiencing,” reads the letter.
Charter school officials say denying the proposal would result in harm to the school, which has absorbed increasing salary, benefits and other costs with no increase in per pupil payment or overall budget.
“PPS and other public officials are dead wrong when they claim that Princeton Charter
School will suffer no harm if this amendment to its charter were denied,” reads the letter. “District officials who complain to the department of their difficulty balancing a budget with an automatic
2-percent budget increase plus numerous waivers of that cap know full well that for the past eight
years, Princeton Charter School has received $15,339 per student, with no increase
whatsoever. Over the course of those eight years, PCS has been required to provide annual
salary increases to retain its top-performing faculty, and health care costs have gone up
Charter school official said last year the school was able to cover additional expenses with no
new revenues with the help of faculty, who voluntarily agreed to pay a greater share of their health benefits costs. Senior faculty declined or accepted reduced salary increases in recent years to ensure their younger colleagues receive their increases, charter school officials said.
“Without the expansion, Princeton Charter School will not only be unable to sustain current operations, but it will be unable to enhance its current program to support all its students and economically disadvantaged students in particular as contemplated in our application,” reads the letter. “This plan depends on the economies of scale that the expansion will make possible. Without expansion, we face salary freezes and reductions in our academic program, and any new initiatives of this sort to promote diversity will be impossible.”
In the letter, charter school officials ask the state to recognize the community demand for more seats at the school.
“Over the past seven years, thirty percent of all Princeton parents seek a seat for their kindergarten students at PCS, notwithstanding the reputation of PPS as a high performing district typically included among the top in the state,” reads the letter. “When 30 percent of all parents apply for the PCS lottery, they demonstrate through their action that they want PCS, they want a choice in public school options, and that more seats should be authorized to satisfy this consistently strong demand.”
If the school’s application to add 76 students is granted, charter school officials say the school will be able to satisfy roughly half of the demand and double the opportunity for economically disadvantaged students to be admitted through the lottery. “The high PCS parent demand fosters greater accountability of PPS. The presence of real parental empowerment through school choice positively impacts PPS’s governance and program decision-making,” reads the letter.
Charter school officials claim the school has taken every measure available within state rules to increase socioeconomic diversity. The school runs a marketing campaign designed to increase enrollment applications from ethnically diverse and economically disadvantaged students, hosts open houses and information sessions in neighborhoods throughout Princeton, identifies potential candidate families with the help of religious and community leaders, recruits prospective students at local preschools and learning centers, and makes door-to-door visits to neighborhoods with low-income housing to inform parents about the school and its lottery, charter leaders said. The school immediately backfills every open spot in the numerical order of its waitlist, charter school officials said.
“We have sought to meet with the parents of students in PPS’s preschool program, which is offered at no cost to students who qualify for a free or reduced price meals program, to inform them about Princeton Charter School and our lottery,” reads the letter. “To date, our requests have been ignored or rejected by PPS.”
Charter school officials say a significant reason the school’s socioeconomic diversity lags that of the Princeton community is that the charter school has an atypical, staggered admissions structure with only one section of kindergarten, first grade, and second grade, but two sections in grades three through eight. Charter school leaders say as children get older, they are less likely to move from PPS schools to PCS.
“Unlike many charters that begin with the earliest grades and then add higher grades over time, we began without grades K-2 originally,” reads the letter. “This staggered admissions structure has had unintended, but significant, implications for our ability to attract economically disadvantaged students. The data reveal that approximately half the students on free and reduced lunch at some point at PCS entered the school in these earliest years. This was so even though the number of students in these grades has comprised less than 20 percent of the total number of students at PCS.”
The increase in enrollment will fund additional support services for all students, including
special needs students, English language learners, and students in need of additional help, charter school officials said.
“For the past twenty years, Princeton Charter School has been a model charter school by every measure. We have excelled academically, consistently exceeding district results. We have a strong track record of being fiscally sound. We are an organic, parent-led school that provides a meaningful and highly sought-after option in one of the state’s highest performing districts,’ reads the letter. “We embraced and had near perfect attendance for the PARCC test, in a town where the rhetoric and reality of ‘opting out’ was widespread and fomented by many of the same groups and people opposing this application.”
Charter school officials argue that given the school’s success, denying the application would make it hard for the state to justify other charter expansions and would be “sending a message to all charter schools that such expansions are no longer possible and that educational innovation and parental empowerment are no longer supported.”