Princeton-area charter school, 3 districts argue before administrative law judge

HAMILTON – The battle over charter schools in New Jersey was brought into focus today before an administrative law judge hearing a case involving a Princeton-area charter that intends to open in September 2012.

The Princeton International Academy Charter School this summer sued the Princeton Regional, West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional and South Brunswick school districts.

According to the lawsuit, the school districts have diverted tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars to oppose efforts to secure a facility in South Brunswick, the site of the planned school. The suit also claims that the school districts have disseminated false and inflammatory statements about the charter school to the community and have pledged to use any available means to prevent it from opening.

The fight over this particular proposed charter school has been one of the most watched in the state. The movement toward charter schools has been fought in the halls of the Statehouse with various pieces of proposed legislation aimed at affecting different aspects of the movement, including who has authority to approve a charter school and whether voters should have a say.

Each side today was seeking a summary judgment in its favor during a proceeding that solely involved attorneys’ arguments before the judge but no testimony from witnesses. The judge took the case under advisement.

Anonymous petitioners

The use of anonymous petitioners on behalf of the charter school’s suit came up for scrutiny, with school districts’ attorney David Carroll arguing that “there is a societal interest in having judicial issues be public, and that includes the actual names of the parties involved.”

However, charter school attorney William Harla countered that because children are involved, and because there have been vitriolic emails over this issue, anonymity of the actual petitioners is desired. In addition, he told Administrative Law Judge Lisa James-Beavers that if necessary they would provide names to the districts and attorneys.

He also said that if necessary the charter school could add new petitioners.

Legal rights

In response to the charter school’s argument that the districts have no statutory right to spend public money to oppose it, Carroll pointed out that charter schools have a direct effect on public school districts’ finances, enrollments, transportation, and educational abilities.

Carroll pointed out that although the charter school states its existence will affect only 1 percent of the districts’ budgets, the budgets in question are approximately $350 million, which translates to $3.5 million, and affects many teachers’ jobs.

Harla countered that in a time of declining state aid and teacher layoffs it is wrong for the school districts to spend – by his estimation – at least $100,000 so far in opposing a charter school.

In addition, he argued it is wrong for the districts to continually oppose the charter school when state law allows such alternatives to public districts.

What is at stake, he said, is the right of a group of parents who believe that a Mandarin-immersion school will be highly valuable in a 21st-century global economy.

The school is going through the zoning process and has a hearing later this year before a zoning board in South Brunswick.

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