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Charter School files counter lawsuit against Princeton Public Schools

The Princeton Charter School has hit back at the Princeton Public Schools in court, alleging that a lawsuit filed by the school district was not properly approved and was filed only to delay a decision by the New Jersey education commissioner on the school’s application to expand. The charter school also claims the school board has been violating the Open Public Meetings Act repeatedly for at least the past two years.

The Charter School filed an application with the state in December to amend its charter to expand by 76 students and add a weighted lottery for economically disadvantaged students. A decision by the state commissioner of education on the application is expected in March.

On Dec. 27, the Princeton Public Schools filed a lawsuit against the Princeton Charter School, claiming the charter school board of trustees violated the state’s Sunshine Law when the board decided to filed an amendment to its charter with the state. The charter school acknowledged violations in its response to the lawsuit. At the end of January, the district also filed a document with the state commissioner of education opposing the charter school expansion, arguing the expansion would be financially devastating to the district.

In the latest development in the ongoing battle that has divided the Princeton community, the Princeton Charter School filed a response and counter lawsuit on Jan. 27, and on Feb. 8, the school’s lawyer also sent a letter to the district’s lawyer demanding that the lawsuit be dropped.

The counterclaim filed by the charter school alleges that the board for the Princeton Public Schools has violated the Open Public Meetings Act almost every meeting since the fall of 2014. When public bodies go into closed session to discuss matters, they must list each individual item they plan to discuss in closed session, to the extent known. The school board has failed to specify the subjects to be discussed in closed session at each of its regular board meetings, according to the lawsuit.

According to the lawsuit, there is also no reference made to filing a lawsuit against the charter school in any school board closed session agenda in December, and the board did not approve a resolution in public. The lawsuit alleges the district’s action sprung from an unlawful closed session and therefore should be void. “The board’s claims should be barred by virtue of its own pattern and practice of violating the Open Public Meetings Act,” reads the suit. The charter school, which is being represented by lawyer Thomas Johnston of Montclair, is also seeking attorney fees.

A letter Johnston sent to the district via email on Wednesday morning demands that the district drop its suit within 28 days, or the charter school will seek sanctions.

The charter school claims the district could have requested a decision by the court on the Sunshine law case before the state education commissioner decides on the school’s application. Instead, the district requested that the case be placed on a track allowing for 450 days of discovery.

“When you filed the OPMA action, you had to certify that it was not being presented for any improper purpose, such as to harass or cause unnecessary delay or needless increase in the cost of litigation,” reads the letter. “You waived pursuit of PPS’ OPMA claims in a summary manner, which could have allowed the court to decide the matter within weeks. Instead you filed the OPMA action knowing that a decision on the merits would not occur before the commissioner makes her decision on the amendment application.”

The Superior Court has jurisdiction over all Open Public Meetings Act claims in the state. The lawyer for the charter school argues that the lawsuit was filed “in bad faith for an improper purpose to achieve an undue advantage with commissioner while avoiding an adverse decision by judge” on the Sunshine Law issues.

Nineteen pages of the district document opposing the expansion discuss the lawsuit. The district asked the commissioner to deny the charter amendment because of the violations and to place the charter school on probation for the Sunshine law violations.

“The PPS comments make it plain that the sole purpose of this OPMA action was and is to delay and cast a cloud over the amendment application. In PPS’s comments you argue risk of considerable confusion, disruption and uncertainty over granting the amendment application while your baseless OPMA claims are pending. But any such risk is solely by your own design,” reads the letter. “If PPS genuinely wanted to challenge PCS’s actions under OPMA or believed its claims to be meritorious, PPS could have sought immediate relief form the court. By failing to timely pursue a judicial remedy, PPS knowingly waived that remedy.”

The charter school lawyer argues that the Princeton Public Schools “blatantly violated” the Sunshine Law “either by deciding in secret, in an unlawful closed session, to file this action, or by not duly securing the authorization of the PPS board to commence this litigation.”

The letter calls the litigation  a “needless and pointless” waste of the public monies of both parties, “monies that should be spent on students and not on attorneys.”

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.

  • Girl928

    Princeton is SO litigious… and we pay the price to live here.

  • Bob Schwartz

    Can you share how to retrieve the PCS response? (I guess we can’t post full links.)

  • Paul Josephson

    As requested.

  • Bob Schwartz

    Could you post a link to the PCS response?

  • FreshAir

    Not on either team… just want our public schools to be successful for our kids. What’s coming out of PPS demonstrates the simple fact that PPS leadership lacks the experience, smarts, & integrity required for excellent management. We’re starting to feel the School Board has again passed the baton to a Superintendent who looks good but lacks real skill. Egregious spending patterns, a disregard for reality, & institutional monotone were set in stone by our former Superintendent, with a polite smile, of course, (but probably a laugh out loud when alone). The current Superintendent is still wet behind the ears, but already compensated at the very top of the pay grade & creating an alternate reality, hoping it will fly. He just may be successful, given the enormous support of those who challenge blue ribbons & faux awards above all else.

  • Liz Winslow

    The
    PCS response to the PPS suit has been disseminated, and what a read it
    is. It is frankly devastating to the sending district, and paints a
    very vivid picture of lack of academic performance, demand for PCS in
    the town, and egregious spending by PPS. My favorite of the many ways
    that PPS has borked this whole situation was that just one of JSR’s
    errors (which are tracked in depth) was off by a factor of 500% (free
    and reduced lunch kids entering PCS in K). PPS started a legal fight it
    could not win sheerly for PR, and now quite a bit more of its dirty
    laundry has been aired. Go team.

  • FreshAir

    East Windsor 18,469, WW-P 18,677, Montgomery 19,155 tells the story. The fact that most of the Districts in our state have a cost per pupil in the teens tells the story. Really don’t think they can blame this on “high cost students”… just look at the debt service numbers & administrative salary numbers!!! The fact that Cranbury pays us an amount that’s only in the 17Ks per pupil to educate 270+- high school kids, so Princeton’s senior citizen households & all other households then have to provide 2 million+- annually to subsidize them, also can’t be hidden.

  • Liz Winslow

    And the stock answer will always be that comparisons are meaningless because we have some super-special mix of extremely high cost students that exist nowhere else, so the answer to any question is always more money. Sigh. Thanks for the Montgomery addition.

  • FreshAir

    Looks like some Montgomery figures for 2014-2015 are;
    4809 students, $19,155 cost per pupil

  • ethan_in_nj

    Apologies: one transcription and one export error appear above (Princeton and PCS enrollment).
    2014-2015 year, per NJ Guide to Ed. Spending:

    #pupil, $/pupil, $ fraction local revenue, student/teacher ratio,
    student/support ratio, student/admin ratio, Teacher median income,
    Support median income, Admin median income, % classified students
    East Windsor, 5178, 18.469,.674,12.4,85.3,163.6, 68.700,70.277,130.356,.100
    Ewing, 3659, 21.372,.751,10.8,68.5,170.1, 63.816,72.445,141.726,.165
    Hamilton ,12140,17.076,.514,12.1,71.4,210.4, 64.794,69.944,112.607,.141
    Hopewell, 3682, 23.103,.857,10.9,61.8,183.2, 75.717,73.082,132.000,.119
    Lawrence, 4043, 19.666,.809,12.4,59.1,159.7, 60.451,66.461,109.909,.130
    Princeton, 3604, 24.634,.781,11.3,58.8,136.2, 79.471,81.527,148.677,.127
    Robbinsville, 2959, 16.564,.826,12.6,80.2,184.6, 59.344,65.521,124.900,.114
    Trenton, 13978,23.108,.073,11.1,61.6,168.8, 73.065,86.865,124.784,.147
    WW-P, 9815, 18.677,.806,13.2,88.0,224.3, 79.850,82.850,135.044,.086
    PCS, 347, 20.737,.734,11.5,347.0,93.8, 62.930,70.035,118.750,.035

  • Liz Winslow

    (and because I am not the math-iest person in the household, I’ve asked him to pop on here when he gets home to clarify anything)

  • Liz Winslow

    Apologies for this being hard to read, but I asked my husband, who plotted a graph of this very thing, if he had it in text. If you can make this out:

    IIRC year is 2014, $ in thousands

    District,
    #pupil, $/pupil, $ fraction local revenue, student/teacher ratio,
    student/support ratio, student/admin ratio, Teacher median income,
    Support median income, Admin median income, % classified students
    East Windsor, 5178, 18.469, 0.674, 12.4, 85.3, 163.6, 68.7, 70.277, 130.356, 0.1
    Ewing, 3659, 21.372, 0.751, 10.8, 68.5, 170.1, 63.816, 72.445, 141.726, 0.165
    Hamilton, 12140, 17.076, 0.514, 12.1, 71.4, 210.4, 64.794, 69.944, 112.607, 0.141
    Hopewell, 3682, 23.103, 0.857, 10.9, 61.8, 183.2, 75.717, 73.082, 132.0, 0.119
    Lawrence, 4043, 19.666, 0.809, 12.4, 59.1, 159.7, 60.451, 66.461, 109.909, 0.13
    Princeton, 3064, 24.634, 0.781, 11.3, 58.8, 136.2, 79.471, 81.527, 148.677, 0.127
    Robbinsville, 2959, 16.564, 0.826, 12.6, 80.2, 184.6, 59.344, 65.521, 124.9, 0.114
    Trenton, 13978, 23.108, 0.073, 11.1, 61.6, 168.8, 73.065, 86.865, 124.784, 0.147
    WW-P, 9815, 18.677, 0.806, 13.2, 88.0, 224.3, 79.85, 82.85, 135.044, 0.086
    PCS, 231, 20.737, 0.734, 11.5, 347.0, 93.8, 62.93, 70.035, 118.75, 0.035

  • Sandra J. Bierman

    I am curious to know how much money per student other districts spend as we all know that surrounding ones such as WW-P, Montgomery, etc., are extremely successful schools.

  • FreshAir

    Agreed, of course there is summer school & summer programs after the 180+- operational school days for all. Of course, the business offices remain open. I stand corrected & appreciate your clarification (& your work, if you are a teacher). Shame on me for painting the calendar of our District with one broad 9 month brushstroke… but my opinion of the quality of the work done by District planners, and particularly of the behavior of PPS & PCS leadership won’t change. Clearly, some District employees & contractors are either overpaid or unnecessary, because throwing an excess 25 million into this supertanker District hasn’t helped right the ship. We are now in embarrassing, expensive, escalating lawsuits over money of all things… Milo Mina, posting above, is right… it’s getting ridiculous.

  • Martha Friend

    I have to jump in here anonymous Fresh Air commentator and although I’ve appreciated some of your words in the past, supporting Princeton public school teachers and kids: “It’s easy to believe in our kids & teachers though…given room anywhere, they will shine!”, today, you’ve misspoken. The work we as a district do does not end in June. You do not understand how a school district operates if you think that the education of students only happens during 10 months. There is vitally important work happening to create, support, plan and critique all programs, lessons, spaces, and resources throughout the critical two summer months. This does not even take into account the incredible amount of teaching that occurs within our buildings throughout the summer. The education of students is a full-year job.

  • FreshAir

    With an annual budget of over 90 million dollars, to educate 3610+- Princeton kids 9 months a year, and with overspending now close to 30 million dollars a year: PPS Administrators clearly have no respect or concern for resident taxpayers. It has been ridiculous for awhile now, due to extreme lapses in effort. The only conclusion I can come to is that the towns people elected to oversee all of this are either so rich or so ill-informed about what’s happening outside the Princeton bubble, they are useless.

  • Liz Winslow

    Indeed. If PPS really believed they had a case, and didn’t just want to do a bunch of legal jazz hands over this, it would have filed for an injunction. This was a PR stunt, and it looks like it just backfired.

  • Milo mina

    Agreed. Both schools need to drop their lawsuits. I am a taxpayer and this is getting ridiculous.

  • Robert Dana

    Nice article. Thorough explanation.

    Looks like PPS and its lawyers have some explaining of their own to do.

    Probably a mistake not to fast track its open meeting claim – if that were an option. It makes the PPS look like obstructionists rather than problem solvers.

    Litigation like this is hugely expensive. What a humongous waste of taxpayer money. Ultimately, we have to pay both bills. Yikes!

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