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Suburban Schools vs. Charter: First Round Goes to the Suburbs

Princeton charter says it will next appeal decision to acting commissioner.

An administrative law decision in favor of three suburban districts fighting a charter school in their midst could embolden districts facing similar battles.

That was the essence of the discussion among both charter and district advocates yesterday. The subject: the decision on Friday by administrative law judge Lisa James-Beavers rejecting Princeton International Academy Charter School (PIACS) in its suit against three districts challenging its opening.

PIACS had charged that Princeton Regional, West Windsor-Plainsboro, and South Brunswick had wrongfully spent more than $100,000 in taxpayers' money for legal and other fees to fight the school's opening, including opposing PIACS' application for a zoning variance.

But in a decision that now moves to acting education commissioner Chris Cerf, James-Beavers found that the school boards had the right to protect the districts' interests. While she took a slap at the districts' claiming that charter schools are "quasi-private" when they are not, she said nothing prevented them from even saying that in their campaign against the schools.

"There is no indication that the boards so acted without rational basis or that such actions were induced by improper motives," James-Beavers wrote.

She said a formal appeal after the state's approval of the school might have been preferable, but it did not preclude other means. "They could have rationally concluded that the best interests of their schools necessitated opposition to the establishment of PIACS through other channels," the judge wrote.

The charter immediately said it would pursue the case with Cerf, and potentially beyond. It had contended that the districts had ample opportunity to register their opposition through the formal appeals process, an appeal they never filed.

"While PIACS was disappointed in today's decision, we are confident in our position that the expenditure of over $100,000 in public funds to oppose a charter school approved by the commissioner of education is wrong and that our position will be vindicated on appeal," said the school in a written statement.

Conversely, the superintendent of at least one of the districts expressed her satisfaction with the decision, saying this was never about the charter school's existence.

"The issue is not charter vs. public schools, but the rights of a board to make decisions to protect its students, retain its funds, and seek the advice of an attorney," said Judith Wilson, superintendent of the Princeton Regional Schools District.

The decision came as charters and public schools in New Jersey have increasingly turned to the courts to resolve their differences. This is one of four cases with formal legal actions underway.

Most prominent has been Cherry Hill's challenge in state appellate court to this fall's approval of the Regis Academy Charter School, contending it would draw nearly $2 million from the district's coffers.

One district advocate said PIACS' loss in its case provides districts some sense of relief, especially given it was PIACS that initiated the lawsuit.

"Certainly if districts feel they may be harmed, they may find themselves in a better position to challenge," said Lynne Strickland, director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, whose members include most of the districts involved in the challenges.

She added that the ruling may chill charter schools from fighting back, as PIACS had done. "This may be a double dose they weren't seeking," Strickland said.

But charter advocates weren't so sure, saying the decision only maintains the status quo.

"I wouldn't characterize it as a real blow against charters," said Carlos Perez, president of the New Jersey Charter Schools Association. "Each of these challenges is its own case. There are districts that will oppose charters, and they will likely continue. And we'll continue to make our case."

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