Judge: Princeton Charter School and Princeton Public Schools must obey Sunshine Law in the future

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.


  1. Does this mean that we can finally move on from this issue to tackle the much larger bond referendum? It seems out of all the candidates only James Fields has gone on record to drop the lawsuits. It would seem that the first step in healing is the stop the fighting, but all the other candidates seem to want to continue to fight PCS. What good does it do at this point? Can the candidates on record such as Julie Ramirez, Beth Behrend, etc please comment to this new development? They speak of bringing PCS and PPS community closer together, but yet champion more lawsuits? They are willing to spend more of our tax dollars for more lawsuits and yet will also come next March with a referendum to increase or taxes? At what point does the term “moving on” come into play? At close to $25k per pupil PPS school system is already one of the highest in the state of NJ and yet we cant’ do more with the same or more with less? How do the other high achieving school district accomplish this at a lower cost is the better question to settle now instead of PCS vs. PPS battle.

    1. It’s time we start holding the officials who went ahead with the lawsuit accountable. The remedy in the case of a successful outcome doesn’t justify the expense. What a waste of taxpayer money. Clearly done for political reasons.

      The whole thing is pretty easily solved. PCS needed to expand to bring in more money. PPS didn’t want to give them more money. If PPS had just given PCS a share of the increase in it’s budget every year, the whole thing would have been avoided. PCS could have changed the charter to bring in more disadvantaged minorities while getting more money per head simply by getting the same percentage increase PPS gives it’s own operating budget.

      1. By my recollection this whole “$1.2 million” doomed scenario ended up being about $47 per household when all was said and done in tax increase. So we pitted families and neighbors and scowls at McCaffrey’s for a Saturday nights pizza meal at Conte’s? I’m not sure if everyone had to do this over again $47 dollars would be worth the time and effort. I certainly hoped that the current board and prospective new board members will address bigger line items that a $47 impact. If Pat Palmer is right from the last bond issue it went from $60 million to $90 million with cost overruns. That is a real line item to deal with for these board members. If the new expansion ended up being the same amount, we are talking about 80-90 times financial impact or potentially over $4,000 per household.

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