NJ Spotlight: Lawsuit could increase tensions between charters and traditional schools in suburban enclaves statewide. By John Mooney, NJSpotlight.com, August 15, 2011
As New Jersey’s battles over charter schools have increasingly gone suburban, one charter school is fighting back in a legal counteroffensive that could have statewide implications.
The Princeton International Academy Charter School (PIACS) has filed suit against three districts that have openly fought its existence, contending that they have unlawfully used public funds in their two-year campaign against the school.
Although approved by the state, the charter has yet to open. It has needed two extensions while it battles for potential sites in Princeton and now South Brunswick, two of the districts named as defendants. The third is West Windsor-Plainsboro.
The lawsuit alleges that the three districts have spent at least $44,000 in legal fees and other expenses in a “calculated and continuing campaign with the objective of ensuring that PIACS never opens its doors.”
Much of the money has been spent in zoning boards and other public forums where schools officials and lawyers have opposed the charter.
“The law is very clear. You as a school district are not supposed to pick sides between school bodies or school students,” said William Harla, an attorney with DeCotiis, Fitzpatrick & Cole, which is representing PIACS. “In law and public policy, it’s about line drawing, and they’ve crossed the line.”
The districts have denied that they have done anything unlawful, issuing a joint statement that acknowledged their longstanding opposition to the school but saying they are only looking after the well-being of public school students and fulfilling their duties as public stewards.
“It is clearly the Boards’ duty to not only be sound stewards of public funds but certainly to also ascertain and insure that children are traveling on safe bus routes, attending schools housed in suitable facilities with appropriate health and safety standards in place and being provided the promised curriculum,” read the statement.
The case rests on the legal points as to how far a district can advocate a policy position, something that has often been adjudicated in the courts. The lawsuit cites a series of decisions dating back more than 50 years, in which the New Jersey courts have specifically prohibited districts from advocacy roles, even on behalf of their own budgets.
But the challenge appears to have a broader purpose: fighting back against districts — mostly suburban — that have begun to resist charter schools opening in their midst. Although not as heated or protracted, similar contests have arisen between traditional and charter schools in East Brunswick, Livingston, Millburn, Englewood, Teaneck and other communities.
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- Related Links
- PIACS et al v. Princeton Regional Schools Board of Education et alSchool Districts’ Response
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Original Post:, August 15, 2011, Stymied Charter Files Suit Against Three School Districts