Down but now out. That’s what officials at the Princeton International Academy Charter School vow after a confluence of events shut down their efforts to open this September.
The last and final blow this year was PIACs’ failure to obtain an extension from the state to buy time to get zoning approval from Plainsboro Township to move into St. Joseph’s Seminary.
But a September, 2011, opening may not be easy, and PIACS’ foes — including the West Windsor-Plainsboro School District — seem just as determined to see that the charter school never serves any students.
“The disappointment of not getting the extension and the disappointment of all the basic tricks that the school district officials have been pulling is behind us,” said Parker Block, PIACS spokesman and co-founder. “We know that there are going to be more obstacles they throw in our way. They know that we’re coming, and they know there’s not much they can do. They’re just going to try to oppose us at every turn.”
For the second time in as many weeks, on July 19 a hearing on PIACS’ application for a variance to occupy St. Joseph’s Seminary was cancelled at the last minute by the Plainsboro Zoning Board.
This time it was by request of the charter school itself, as a result of the state Department of Education’s denial of a request for an extension to a July 15 deadline to obtain a certificate of occupancy (CO) for the Mapleton Road seminary. PIACS missed the original deadline due to the postponement of the originally scheduled Zoning Board hearing due to a technicality on July 7.
The CO was the last step in the final approval for the charter school to open in September. However, the DOE did give the charter school an entire year to find a facility and obtain a CO — without having to repeat the process of re-applying for its charter at the state level. PIACS officials hope to open in September, 2011.
Leading up to the July 19 hearing, charter school officials had planned to go ahead with the zoning board hearing despite the denial of extension request.
However, Block, said PIACS requested the adjournment on the day of the hearing. “Our attorneys were contacted yesterday by township officials who were concerned that the opposition would create somewhat of a spectacle and showdown,” claims Block. “The politicians in Plainsboro were concerned about that, and they asked that in light of the fact that the DOE has given us a year extension, if we can use that time for the purpose of discussing zoning issues because things are rather heated. Perhaps this would give everybody time to cool down a little bit, and we can go forward in a way that’s more productive.”
But according to Plainsboro Township Administrator Robert Sheehan, however, politics did not play a part in the adjournment.
“That’s a little bewildering to me to be honest,” Sheehan said, referring to Block’s comment. “Our zoning board was ready, willing, and able to hear that application last night, as it has been handling the application appropriately since they applied back in May.”
Further, Sheehan added, “they’ve asked to extend it to September 1. Given the state’s ruling on their charter extension, we don’t know what their intentions are. We hope to find that out.”
Block said that the lease agreement that PIACS had with St. Joseph’s Seminary was contingent upon the school receiving the official charter from the DOE, which it did not obtain because it missed the deadline. “The way the lease was written, if we didn’t receive the charter, the lease was null and void.”
WW-P school board President Hemant Marathe said he did not know why the application was pulled, but said he was told that the only party that can pull an application is the applicant itself — in this case the charter school.
Referring to comments posted in an online version of a story about PIACS on this newspaper’s website, Marathe said he was “really disappointed with Mr. Block’s approach because he seems to be slashing at everyone who opposes his point of view. We have steadfastly believed that the charter school is not in the best interest of the West Windsor and Plainsboro taxpayers.”
Marathe said the proposed charter school is “not educationally and not economically sound.” He said he hopes a “much more productive dialogue will be held going forward” and that the delay will give the state a chance to re-evaluate its decision on the charter school.
But Block said the fact that the charter school now has a year to obtain a certificate of occupancy will give it more time. “This past year, we only had time to seriously look at two options, and St. Joseph’s Seminary was the better of the two. Now we’re going to be looking at other things.”
One consideration is that the seminary is looking at bringing in a consortium of schools to the facility, Block said, adding that PIACS would be trying to determine where it would fit into those plans. “We are a large school and potentially next year, even larger. We need to look at the best facility options, considering we’re starting with at least 170 students,” and that the school plans to gradually increase enrollment.
The 170 students who would have attended PIACS this year will return to the public school system or enroll in private school, Block said. “They’re all trying to figure out ways they can somehow supplement the education they will be receiving, knowing that the schools aren’t able to provide everything that PIACS would,” he said.
While Block said some parents are worried at backlash within the public school community upon their students’ return for this year, “we have faith that things will cool down and that the teachers will be responsible, despite the fact that the administrators have been inciting the worst in people of late.”
Block said PIACS is also planning to organize information sessions beginning in the fall to share information with the members of the community, not just perspective students, to encourage good communication.
District officials are not giving up the fight, though, Marathe said. He said school officials plan to appeal the state’s decision to grant the charter school a full year to get the necessary approvals in time for a September, 2011, opening.
“The governor has been pushing for consolidation,” Marathe said. “The governor has been asking people to share services, and I don’t understand how starting a small charter school that caters to a small group of kids caters to that philosophy of getting the best bang for the buck for the taxpayers.”
What was referred to as a “de minimis” oversight in the PIACS’s public notice for its pending hearing before the Plainsboro Zoning Board on July 7 was the ultimate roadblock for the school’s opening in the fall. The board determined it should not hear the application after counsel for the WW-P District pointed out that the notice sent by the charter school of the meeting did not list the township’s hours of operation, as required by state law.
A variance was needed for the charter school to use the existing classroom facilities at the seminary because the property is currently zoned for office-business.
PIACS will consist of students from the Princeton, South Brunswick, and West Windsor-Plainsboro school districts if it obtains final approval. The school will be the first to offer an International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum framework as well as dual language Mandarin-English immersion.