Stymied Charter Files Suit Against Three School Districts

John Mooney | August 15, 2011 | Education
Lawsuit could increase tensions between charters and traditional schools in suburban enclaves statewide

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As New Jersey’s battles over charter schools have increasingly gone suburban, one charter school is fighting back in a legal counteroffensive that could have statewide implications.

The Princeton International Academy Charter School (PIACS) has filed suit against three districts that have openly fought its existence, contending that they have unlawfully used public funds in their two-year campaign against the school.

Although approved by the state, the charter has yet to open. It has needed two extensions while it battles for potential sites in Princeton and now South Brunswick, two of the districts named as defendants. The third is West Windsor-Plainsboro.

The lawsuit alleges that the three districts have spent at least $44,000 in legal fees and other expenses in a “calculated and continuing campaign with the objective of ensuring that PIACS never opens its doors.”

Much of the money has been spent in zoning boards and other public forums where schools officials and lawyers have opposed the charter.

“The law is very clear. You as a school district are not supposed to pick sides between school bodies or school students,” said William Harla, an attorney with DeCotiis, Fitzpatrick & Cole, which is representing PIACS. “In law and public policy, it’s about line drawing, and they’ve crossed the line.”

Public Stewards

The districts have denied that they have done anything unlawful, issuing a joint statement that acknowledged their longstanding opposition to the school but saying they are only looking after the well-being of public school students and fulfilling their duties as public stewards.

“It is clearly the Boards’ duty to not only be sound stewards of public funds but certainly to also ascertain and insure that children are traveling on safe bus routes, attending schools housed in suitable facilities with appropriate health and safety standards in place and being provided the promised curriculum,” read the statement.

The case rests on the legal points as to how far a district can advocate a policy position, something that has often been adjudicated in the courts. The lawsuit cites a series of decisions dating back more than 50 years, in which the New Jersey courts have specifically prohibited districts from advocacy roles, even on behalf of their own budgets.

But the challenge appears to have a broader purpose: fighting back against districts — mostly suburban — that have begun to resist charter schools opening in their midst. Although not as heated or protracted, similar contests have arisen between traditional and charter schools in East Brunswick, Livingston, Millburn, Englewood, Teaneck. and other communities.

Backing the Challenge

Citing some of those communities and more, the state’s Charter School Association quickly issued its own statement on Friday applauding the challenge.

“We don’t believe public school districts should be using valuable taxpayer money to fight to keep other children from having high-quality public school options,” said Carlos Perez, the association’s executive director. “It’s unfair that a start-up charter school is forced to spend its limited resources fighting a public school district instead of using that money to educate children.”

The charter school isn’t mounting its case on the cheap, either. It has hired one of the state’s preeminent law firms, as well as a well-known public relations shop to defend its cause. Block said it was being entirely funded by private individuals, although he refused to disclose who they are.

But how much it will put a chill in the opposition is yet to be seen.

“We are not under the illusion that bringing districts to be held to their mandate will make the opposition disappear to our school,” said Parker Block, a co-founder of PIACS. “It may even increase it.

“But a lot of the elements of what we are going through pertain to all charter schools,” he continued. “School districts feel they can circumvent the process and thwart the school and parents because they have more power and more political power,” he said. “In the end, this may have more impact for other charter schools than it does for us.”

One of the founders of a statewide organization critical of charter schools and New Jersey’s charter school law said the lawsuit could backfire on the movement.

“I think it gives us a great tool to build membership,” said Julia Sass Rubin of Save Our Schools NJ, which organized a series of rallies this summer seeking changes to the state’s charter school law. “It makes people sit up and notice that there is a war going on.”

She called the charter school’s lawsuit a “scorched earth policy.” “Stick up your hands, we want your money,” Rubin said of the school’s intentions.

She acknowledged that the legal challenge may cool districts’ willingness to take on charter schools, and she said that is all the more reason the state’s charter school law should be changed to give local residents more say about charters opening in their communities.

“But I think this will bring out more opposition,” Rubin said. “I just think it will make people more angry and mobilize the opposition.”

The challenge was filed with the state’s acting education commissioner Chris Cerf. It has been assigned to a state administrative law judge, who will issue a finding that Cerf can affirm or deny. That decision can be contested in state appellate court.