In a rare move, a Mercer County Superior Court judge issued injunctions against both the Princeton Charter School and the Princeton Public Schools Friday, telling lawyers for both organizations that their public bodies must obey the state’s Open Public Meetings act going froward or face consequences, including fines.
On Nov. 28, the Princeton Charter School Board of Trustees held a closed session and a public meeting that were not properly noticed. The board voted to apply to the state for a charter amendment to expand and use a weighted admissions lottery to benefit economically disadvantaged students. The New Jersey Commissioner of Education approved the charter amendment at the end of February, allowing the expansion to go ahead.
The school board for the Princeton Public Schools then held a closed session in December to discuss what action to take against the Princeton Charter School, and passed a resolution in the public session authorizing school officials to take action to stop the charter school expansion. Six days later, the superintendent of schools, the school board secretary, the school board president and the school board vice president met and decided to file a lawsuit against the charter school for violating the Open Public Meetings Act, commonly known a Sunshine Law. The closed session meeting of the school board for the Princeton Public Schools in December also violated the Sunshine law, and the Princeton Charter School counter-sued.
In January, the Princeton Charter School held a public meeting to remedy the November open public meetings act violation by taking another vote on the charter amendment after hearing public comment form residents and officials from the public schools. The Sunshine Law lists a few remedies for violations, including curative remedies and fines.
Judge Mary Jacobson ruled Friday that the charter school’s remedy was sufficient and that she would not void the Princeton Charter School’s application to the state for an amended charter. But she also expressed concerns about both school districts violating the Open Public Meetings Act and said a “flexible remedy” was warranted. More than once, Jacobson also noted that it was ironic that the Princeton Public Schools violated the Sunshine Law while suing the Princeton Charter School for Sunshine Law violations. She also stressed the importance of all public bodies following the law.
“The whole purpose of the act is to provide the public with access to meetings of public entities so citizens can be informed about what government is doing,” Jacobson said. “Boards of education are one of the specific public entities that must have a public comment period at every meeting. This underscores the importance to the public of the education of children. Adequate notice is critical to the right to be heard.”
Jacobson said she was concerned about the charter school not providing the proper notice about the November meeting.
“I’m concerned about the message it sends to this charter school or any other charter school. When a topic as important as this is being discussed, these mistakes –whether inadvertent or not — are very significant and in many ways did harm the public’s right to participate,” she said. “The Jan. 11 meeting was curative, so I’m not going to void the charter amendment. I am issuing a declaratory judgement that the meeting of Nov. 28 violated the Open Public Meetings Act and that — even though the court is also finds the Jan. 11 meeting to be corrective — I am issuing an injunction directing the charter school to comply with the Open Public Meetings Act going forward and sending the message that what happened is serious. The remedy can not be used intentionally to get around the law.”
Jacobson also issued a declaratory judgement against the Princeton Public Schools, saying the school board violated the Open Public Meetings Act at its December meeting by going into closed session without listing the subject of the closed session. She said the board’s resolution opposing the charter school violated the Sunshine Law, and she issued an injunction requiring the Princeton Public Schools to follow the Open Public Meetings Act in the future.
Jacobson said citizen watchdogs are very concerned about the pattern and practice of public school boards not properly noticing closed sessions and releasing proper closed session minutes.
“It’s important to a send message to both entities that open public meeting requirements are there for the public’s interest,” Jacobson said.
“It’s ironic that the Princeton Public Schools was considering and went forward with challenges to the charter amendment on the basis of the Open Public Meetings Act when they themselves had a violation,” Jacobson said, adding though that she also found Princeton Charter’s violations more serious than the public school’s violations.
She also discussed the delays in the case. The lawyer for the charter school said the public schools could have filed for a decision earlier to stop the expansion. The lawyer for the public schools argued several months were needed to gather discovery materials for the case. He also said the district was asking for a halt to the second year of the expansion and the weighted lottery for economically disadvantaged students in April of 2018, but was not asking that new students who were already admitted this year as part of the expansion be removed from the charter school.
Jacobson said the approval of the amended charter impacts budgets for both the charter school and public schools, and both schools’ planning for this year and the future. Jacobson said the charter school expansion is a sensitive topic of great public interest. She said her remedy to the violation didn’t have to void the charter school’s application to expand, and that it shouldn’t because of all of the ramifications given what has happened since then. The school already held a weighted lottery, admitted new students, and hired new staff. She said she had to consider current students and the ability of the schools to plan going forward.
“The court is very concerned that the extraordinary remedies sought by the Princeton Public Schools (to stop the expansion and weighted lottery) might hurt students in the long run,” Jacobson said. “It could mean more delays, more uncertainty, and more acrimony in community. Proceeding forward will provide a resolution to the current controversy.”
School district officials have not said whether they will appeal the decision. A separate case about the state’s approval of the amended charter is still being decided at the Appellate Court level.