Love ‘em and Sometimes Fight ‘em: NJ’s Charter School Dilemma

John Mooney | April 13, 2012 | Education
In highly watched case, Cerf sides with school districts battling boutique charter

Credit: Amanda Brown
Chris Cerf, New Jersey Commissioner of Education.
While promoting charter schools in public, the Christie administration has found itself at odds with them on the legal front, as it rebuffed one school’s legal challenge this week and started preparing for another.

Acting education commissioner Chris Cerf this week released his opinion against a challenge from a Mandarin-language school that had sued three local districts for their ongoing efforts against the school opening.

The Princeton International Academy Charter School (PIACS), approved by the state two years ago, maintained that the districts — Princeton Regional, South Brunswick, and West Windsor-Plainsboro — had unlawfully used taxpayer funds to contest the school before zoning boards, as well as in lobbying and other efforts.

PIACS quest to open has been a central drama in the high-profile dispute across the state about these specialty charter schools. PIACS has yet to win the zoning approval, once again rebuffed before a South Brunswick board last month.

An administrative law judge first heard the school’s challenge against the three districts and dismissed it in a summary ruling, saying the districts were within their rights.

The ruling was appealed to Cerf and in a four-page opinion this week he affirmed the ALJ opinion.

“There is no legal authority which precludes respondents from engaging in the contested actions set forth above,” he wrote.

Cerf did issue a veiled warning that the districts’ use of taxpayer funds was not limitless. The districts have been “zealous and relentless in challenging the existence of PIACS,” he wrote, and said their authority to challenge the school is “not unfettered.”

“Such behavior is inconsistent with the professional duty of educators whose primary concern must continually be the students of the community as a whole,” Cerf wrote.

“However, districts are not prohibited from challenging implementation issues, as was the case here,” he said.

The districts welcomed the decision. Judy Wilson, superintendent of Princeton Regional Schools, said she hoped this was the end of the case and the last straw for PIACS as well, given it does not have a location for the fall.

“We thought it was a clear case all along, and happy it was confirmed,” Wilson said. “That should be the end of it.”

Efforts to reach the school’s leaders were unsuccessful yesterday. PIACS’ lawyer, William Harla, said that the ruling was still being discussed and a decision on the next step had yet to be made. “Clearly it’s a disappointment, and we’re reviewing it,” Harla said last night.

This is one of a half-dozen legal challenges in the state involving charter schools. Some are districts challenging the state’s approval of a new charter, including one in Cherry Hill, while others are charters that have yet to win approval. The Quest Academy Charter School in Montclair, turned down by the state five times, has filed an appeal while attempting a sixth time in the latest round of applications.

The newest case is that of Emily Fisher Charter School in Trenton, a 10-year-old school that the state has sought to close. Cerf last month announced he would not renew the school’s charter to reopen next fall, citing a range of problems from its low test scores to operational problems.

The school has maintained that Cerf was wrong in its interpretation of test scores, and in some cases had the wrong data to start with, and the school has shown notable improvements. It has filed a stay against the order, officials said, the first step toward a formal appeal.

Cerf in a letter back to the school last week said he had reviewed the data provided and was unpersuaded.

“The decision to close a school is one of the hardest decisions that we have to make, and is not one that we take lightly,” Cerf wrote. “We understand and appreciate the work that you and your colleagues have put into this school over the past 14 years. However, after a thorough and rigorous review of the data and the school’s operations, I am left with the conclusion that Emily Fisher Charter School has not met the standards for renewal.”