The charter school saga shall continue … in the courtroom. On Wednesday, August 10 the Princeton International Academy Charter School announced a privately funded lawsuit against the West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional, Princeton Regional, and South Brunswick school districts, alleging that the districts exploited taxpayer money to fight the opening of the PIACS.
The motion states that the three districts allocated at least $50,000 to pay for lawyers and consultants to stop the school from securing land and zoning approval, ultimately enough of a delay to cost PIACS two academic years. Pending approvals the school maintains a plan to open in September, 2012.
PIACS says over the past 18 months the school districts stood in the way of letting them secure a facility in South Brunswick, the planned site for the school. The manner in which PIACS shall be able to restore its public image and make up for lost business boils down to monetary compensation. In its suit PIACS is asking that the three districts have their state funding cut, expenditures examined by a third party auditor, and for the funds used against them and the charter school movement to be redirected into PIACS’ pocket. A full outline was given in the official complaint, filed on behalf of PIACS by the firm of Decoths, Fitzpatrick & Cole in Teaneck.
“Recovered monies should be directed to PIACS to bring balance to their unequal position. In this manner, a wrong can be more effectively remedied and the funds will be put to good use, serving the educational purposes of the children in the respondents’ own school district, but under the tutelage of PIACS,” the complaint says.
Parker Block, co-founder and spokesman for PIACS, says the lawsuit stems from two distinct circumstances: the sentiments of families that have faced harassment due to their support of the school and the actions of the school districts. Block said that several months ago the attorney for PIACS observed the way in which the school districts “politicized the community against parents and children” and felt a need to take legal action. He says the lawsuit serves as a defense mechanism rather than bringing the fight to the school districts.
“We’ve seen that what the school districts are doing is unfair — basically using fear to get a whole mob-like opposition going. We want this to stop and the parents want their rights protected,” Block says.
He says when the chance was there to appeal the state education commissioner’s decision to approve PIACS and later grant the one-year planning extension, none of the school districts made a move. Only afterwards did efforts involving lawyers at zoning meetings begin.
“In the past they’ve portrayed themselves as helpless victims being attacked. They had their opportunity to appeal the commissioner’s decision. Their rule is over but they’re still fighting us,” Block said.
By the late Wednesday afternoon a joint press release from the three schools districts was issued in response, signed by each superintendent of schools. (The full text is printed as a letter to the editor on page 2 of this issue.) According to the superintendents’ letter, “the boards are composed of 9 or 10 members, each of whom was elected by the voters. It is ironic that a private group of unelected and unaccountable individuals has initiated legal proceedings challenging the right of the boards to make decisions which the board firmly believes are in the best interests of the districts and the taxpayers.”
Anthony Fleres, a WW-P board member, said he was notified of the lawsuit on Wednesday morning when he received an E-mail from school superintendent Victoria Kniewel. “This came out of the blue. I never expected anything to happen in summer when everyone is away. That plus the fact that they did get the one year extension makes the timing odd,” he said.
Fleres says that the WW-P board would not likely bring this up at its finance meeting on August 16 but a week later, on Tuesday, August 23, when attorneys would likely brief board members and discussions would take place.
Block predicted a response. “My guess is that they’re going to spin this as an attack on them when in fact this is the equivalent of a restraining order. Parents and children in these communities are being attacked. We’re trying to protect them and the rights they have under state law.”
In the complaint PIACS quoted disparaging remarks made in the media by the superintendents of the Princeton Regional and South Brunswick districts as malicious, alongside the legal counsel and attendance and opposition at meetings that undermine the supporters. An E-mail message from WW-P Board President Hemant Marathe dated April 13 was included on the 10th page of the complaint, alleging that Marathe’s words “went well beyond stating objective facts and providing information, and affirmatively solicited residents to appear before the South Brunswick Zoning Board to oppose PIACS’ land use application.”
Block says dollar amounts in the lawsuit were based on calculations of invoices PIACS reviewed, some projected for future proceedings, as well as a standard governmental rate of $165 an hour for legal fees; exactly what South Brunswick Superintendent Gary McCartney quoted when referring to the issue earlier this year.
According to the lawsuit, through May 31, 2011 — the full 18-month period — the districts had spent $44,810.89 in legal fees with charges related to a second land use hearing in June not taken into account. PIACS alleges that the districts have “evidently retained three other licensed professionals, including a professional planner and an engineer” just to provide testimony counter to the pending application in front of the South Brunswick Zoning Board. Block said this form of contention is nothing new.
“At the first Plainsboro Zoning Board meeting (in early 2010) they had attorneys threatening to bring a lawsuit if the board allowed a hearing — we couldn’t even get a fair hearing then and it forced us to miss deadlines,” Block said.
PIACS’s lawsuit attempts to show how the districts’ legal and professional expenses have been an absolute misallocation of taxpayer dollars. The suit calls for a full external audit of each school district’s financial practices. PIACS is asking for periodic audits of the three school districts every six months for two years.
Block says that two years have been lost on the side of parents, children, the school staff, and community. In a telephone interview he lamented lost opportunities for children who would have entered kindergarten in 2010-’11, the first year the school was to be up and running.
They be entering second grade and unable to continue any education in PIACS beyond the 2012-’13 year. Further, the task of attracting a new crop of families and supporters without any tangible record of existence hurts the school, as does other families whose children grow out of the age range.
Block says PIACS will have the necessary enrollment numbers come its planned opening in fall, 2012, and kindergarten is the easiest class to fill, advancing chances for longer-term students. Block says families looking to enroll their children in the school have been viewed as outsiders by the establishment.
The lawsuit serves as more than a bookkeeping report or a measure to stop the schools districts’ anti-charter school activity, he said. PIACS seeks to be compensated directly from state aid that the three school districts would receive, suggesting that as a penalty for their actions and failing to abide by the educational mission inherent in a school system. “The money follows the child,” Block says.
The legal papers submitted suggest that PIACS has anticipated concerns of district administrators and residents (taxpayers) opposed to their opening.
“Respondents and community opponents of PIACS have made arguments, bordering on hysteria, that the charter school will decimate the budget of the local school districts. This is demonstrably false and PIACS’ financial impact on the local school districts amounts to approximately 1 percent of their combined budget.”
PIACS’ initial enrollment would be for 60 students in each grade, K-2, with total initial enrollment not to exceed 290. The three school districts named in the lawsuit have 22,599.
The lawsuit quotes both total budgets and state aid received by each district. The complaint stated that West Windsor-Plainsboro will receive $6,156,426.00 with an operating budget of $152,990,356.00 — double Princeton’s budget and almost $31 million more than South Brunswick’s, although South Brunswick will receive nearly $21.45 million in state aid for 2011-’12.