Officials at the Princeton International Academy Charter School (PIACS) have filed for a second one-year planning extension from the state Department of Education.
While they await a response, they will likely face continued opposition from area residents, who have taken their efforts to the state, calling for reforms to the charter school law.
As part of their efforts, some West Windsor residents, including Randy Slemmon and Paul Pitluk, have joined a statewide grassroots effort known as Save Our Schools NJ, which has taken the charge in calling for reform of what they say is a broken approval process at the state level.
A nonpartisan, grassroots organization, Save Our Schools NJ has organized members all over the state who believe that “all New Jersey children should have access to a high quality public education.”
According to its website, Save Our Schools NJ initially formed in early 2010 during the state budget cuts when residents created a successful phone bank to ensure the passage of local school budgets. But the effort grew to include membership from each of New Jersey’s 40 legislative districts.
Even though charter schools were not the reason the group was formed, members have become advocates for reform of the charter school approval process on a statewide basis, which they say should include a local referendum for any community where a charter school proposes to open.
According to Julia Sass Rubin of Save Our Schools NJ, the group “does not take a position on individual charter schools. We focus on advocating for the needed policy reforms to the current charter law, including allowing local communities to decide if a new charter school should be allowed to open and draw their students and tax dollars.”
“Because New Jersey’s current law disenfranchises local communities from these decisions, some of our members have become engaged in local efforts to stop specific charter schools from opening in their communities, including organizing the petition that was circulated against PIACS,” said Rubin. “However, such efforts are their own initiatives and are not the work of Save Our Schools NJ.”
And officials at Save Our Schools have made it clear that their efforts do not reflect an anti-charter school movement at all. Rather, they are advocates for giving residents a say in the type of charter schools that come into their districts.
Last month Save Our Schools NJ’s members from West Windsor and Plainsboro, Princeton, and South Brunswick took matters into their own hands when they created an online petition that collected more than 1,200 signatures calling for the state to turn down PIACS’ application for a new charter.
The petition asked the DOE to “turn down any applications for an additional planning year or a new charter from the Princeton International Academy Charter School.”
Since that time, PIACS submitted a letter to the DOE to request a one-year planning extension — the second by the school in two years — after the school could not meet the state’s June 30 deadline to complete its documentation. The letter came after PIACS requested that its application before the South Brunswick Zoning Board for a use variance for its proposed location be adjourned until September.
Since it is clear that the 12 Perrine Road facility will not be ready to use for September, 2011, the charter school officials wanted to make sure that everything is well prepared rather than rush it for the next zoning meeting, said PIACS spokesman Parker Block at the time. He said, though, that it was still the location that would best serve PIACS for the long-term.
WW-P has allocated $950,000 in the 2011-’12 budget toward the estimated $1.2 million it is estimated it will have to pay if the charter school opens in September, but WW-P school officials said at the June 28 school board meeting they are waiting to see whether a temporary location for PIACS is found by Friday, July 15, and whether the state will grant the planning extension before deciding on their next move.
The charter school has faced opposition since it won approval by the state Department of Education in January, 2010, to educate students from the Princeton, South Brunswick, and WW-P school districts. The school would be the first to offer an International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum framework as well as dual language Mandarin-English immersion.
It was originally scheduled to open in September, 2010, but WW-P officials were among those who successfully fought a prior PIACS application to the Plainsboro Zoning Board last summer, when it proposed to open at St. Joseph’s Seminary on Mapleton Road.
As a result, PIACS was granted an extension by the state Department of Education. If no extension is granted this time, PIACS would have to reapply to the DOE for a new charter.
The local debate in the WW-P, Princeton, and South Brunswick areas has sparked accusations on both sides. One such accusation is that the opposition has been driven by officials within the local boards of education.
But Slemmon and Pitluk say they are among a group of residents who have taken on the issue because of their own personal beliefs.
Slemmon, a scientist at Johnson & Johnson, moved his family from the midwest to West Windsor more than seven years ago. “We moved here largely because it has such an outstanding and well-run school system,” he says. “That’s probably the main reason why I got interested in this.”
“I wanted to know what the charter school was going to do and what void it was going to fill,” he added. “What became apparent to me was there was no void; there was no need.”
Slemmon, whose son graduated from the WW-P school system a few years ago and is now at Indiana University and whose daughter will be a freshman in high school, says he started going to the Zoning Board meetings to listen to what the charter school wanted to accomplish and what its mission was.
“It seemed like there was no benefit other than they wanted to offer a second language-based education to a limited number of students,” he said. “There didn’t seem to be any other reasons, and that seemed inconsistent with this concept of improving the education system. It just seemed like it was going to split up the system more and raise costs.”
Slemmon also said he felt that PIACS did not contemplate what was best for the community and that there was a “limited agenda” for the school, which would draw public money. What doesn’t make sense for Slemmon is how the charter school is not answerable to the community — a problem Slemmon says begins at the state.
“We have actually seen what can happen when you get a charter application approved by the state when the state has very little knowledge and experience with your community,” said Slemmon. “That’s nonsense to me. Ultimately, schools serve the community. The community needs to have some very meaningful feedback.”
Slemmon described the group of opponents to PIACS — and the charter school system — as a hodgepodge group of people from younger residents to older ones. “I don’t know that we really have a base other than our community and that we have an interest,” he said.
Pitluk, a resident of Village Grande in West Windsor, also joined in the efforts. Pitluk was a teacher and a dean of students at a major high school in New York City before he retired. “I’ve always been interested in the schools here,” he says. “It was my career before I retired. Even though I don’t have children or grandchildren in the district, I’m concerned about the wellbeing of our schools in WW-P. That’s why I initially got involved.”
“I feel basically that this is an effort on the part of certain elite groups that want to establish a private school with public funding,” said Pitluk. “That really rankles me.”
But he isn’t alone. Pitluk says he is a member of the Village Grande Civic Association, where the executive board unanimously voted to oppose any efforts to have a charter school. “We’re all retired people, and we’re very upset with the idea of seeing a charter school in a district that really doesn’t need it.”
Pitluk points to the areas that charter schools were originally aimed to serve — disadvantaged districts that need alternatives to traditional public education. That is not the case in WW-P, he argues.
WW-P is one of the best districts in the state, Pitluk says. “When you have a charter school established here with inferior facilities and a staff that is either transient or early in their careers, you are really playing with the kids that go to the charter schools,” he said. “You’re really playing with their future in terms of a decent education.”
“I feel that the charter schools are siphoning off very important monies that we need, especially in this time of economic difficulty,” he added.
Pitluk says that various studies have indicated that in successful districts, like WW-P, charter schools have not been effective. “Test scores are far lower in charter schools than in the districts like ours.”
That the charter school will require more than $1 million in funding from the WW-P school district is a serious issue to Pitluk.
“This charter school is a Mandarin school,” he said. “In our WW-P district, Mandarin is taught, beginning in fourth grade.”
Pitluk said he became emotionally involved in the issue because he feels like the school system is under attack.
Opponents, including Save Our Schools NJ, have claimed one victory — that the state assembly passed two charter school reform bills for which the group has been advocating. The first bill requires local approval for the establishment of new charter schools. The second ensures charter schools “have financial and educational transparency and accountability and demographically represent their communities.”
The next step for those bills is the state senate. The bills would then head to the governor.
Pitluk, however, believes Governor Chris Christie will veto the bills as part of an effort to strike a blow against the state teachers’ union. “It’s illogical to want a charter school in WW-P, except for the fact that the state wants to weaken the teachers’ union,” he said.
To try to prevent this from happening, Pitluk says the civic association has a lot of registered Republicans who are “adamantly opposed to the charter school.” He says having these people exert their influence or put pressure on the governor and the state Department of Education may help in the cause.
“If a vote were taken in WW-P to approve or deny a charter school, it would be overwhelmingly opposed by the taxpayers of these two areas,” said Pitluk. “What they’re trying to do is get this through with the aid of the governor and cram it down our throats.”
Pitluk also fully expects PIACS officials to continue their efforts. “They’re going to continually try to find a facility in this area,” he said. “We have to stay vigilant and oppose them.”
Block did not respond to an E-mail for comment by press time.