In the battle between the Princeton Public Schools and the Princeton Charter School, there is one clear winner — the lawyers.
Each side in the fight has already paid more than $100,000 in legal fees to lawyers since the Princeton Charter School announced at the end of November that it would seek permission from the state to expand. The state granted the request in the spring, but a few court cases are still pending.
One of the court cases claims the charter school violated the state’s Open Public Meetings Act when it voted to apply to the state to expand its student body. The school’s board of trustees already held a public meeting “do-over” on the vote, but public schools officials still hope the violation will mean the approvals for the expansion are reversed. The charter school is counter-suing on the public meetings issue, claiming the school district has also violated the Open Public Meetings Act.
The other suit at the appellate level challenges the state’s approval of the charter school expansion. The New Jersey Appellate Division has never overturned a commissioner of education’s decision for or against a charter school, according to legal experts in the state, but some public school officials still think the school district can win the case.
Planet Princeton filed public records requests with the Princeton Public Schools and the Princeton Charter School last month for all the legal bills related to the charter school lawsuits from Dec. 1, 2016 to July 1, 1017.
According to the documents Planet Princeton received from the requests, the Princeton Public Schools paid the Fair Lawn firm of Fogarty & Hara $102,996.58 in legal fees between Dec. 1 and July 1 for work related to litigation opposing the charter school expansion.
Princeton Public Schools legal fees for charter school litigation
December – $14,938
January – $25,060.75
February – $12,342.50
March – $12,506
April – $11,075.08
May – $17,808
June – $9,266.25
It appears that the Princeton Charter School spent $103,649.68 in legal fees under the headings “Board of Education vs. Princeton Charter School” and “Request to Amend Charter” from January through June. What each individual fee is for is unclear because all the expense descriptions have been redacted. The school used two law firms – the Johnston Law Firm in Montclair and Schwartz Simon Edelstein & Celso in Whippany. Former state commissioner of education Thomas C. Hespe is a lawyer at the Whippany firm and was one of the lawyers who worked on the amended charter legal issues for Princeton Charter School, according to the billing records.
Princeton Charter School legal fees for litigation related to Princeton Public Schools
January – $8,852.50
February – $8,138
March – $37,827.40
April – $13,478.28
May – $13,650
June – $21,703.50
The legal bills provided to Planet Princeton through the state’s Open Public Records Act were redacted by charter school representatives to the point that every itemized description was removed in full from the bills. The Princeton Public Schools redacted student or employee names and initials from its legal bills.
Charter school officials contend that summaries of the bills are sufficient and that the descriptions are exempt from OPRA. The information is sensitive, they argue, given that litigation with the school district is still pending.
“Detailed descriptions of the tasks have been redacted to preserve attorney client privileged information and attorney work product,” lawyer Tom Johnston wrote in an email to Planet Princeton regarding the records.
Walter Luers, a member of the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government and lawyer who represents citizens and journalists in public records cases (and has represented Planet Princeton several times), expressed shock at the redactions.
“We really should be past the time when agencies that are subject to OPRA redact attorney invoices. The attorneys who work for public agencies and other entities that are subject to OPRA know that their invoices are public records and they should craft those invoices in such a manner so as to detail the work that is performed, without revealing client confidences or strategy,” Luers said. “The bills must be sufficiently detailed so that the taxpayers can ascertain the reasonableness of the work performed. There is no scenario where an agency may redact all of the descriptions of the work performed. Simply put, they should know better, and probably do.”
So far, Planet Princeton and the charter school have been unable to come to an agreement about the redactions.