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.”