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Assemblyman Explains Vote Against Local Approval for New Charter Schools

Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli said the state Department of Education will listen to the concerns of the community before approving a new charter school, after he previously expressed support for a public vote.

Earlier this month, the New Jersey State Assembly  before it opens in a community. However, local proponents of the legislation are unhappy with the 16th District's Assembly representatives, who voted against the bill.

Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli (R-Hillsborough) and Assemblywoman Donna Simon (R-Readington), who represent South Brunswick, Princeton and Hillsborough in District 16, both voted against bill A-1877, which passed the assembly by a vote of 46-27.

Ciattarelli said that he believes local input is important before a charter school is approved by the New Jersey Department of Education, but it's up to local elected officials to make sure that input reaches the DOE and is taken into consideration.

"In respect to charter schools, a group needs to file a very thorough application that shows all of the necessary resources are in place and all criteria has been met in order to even by considered by the DOE and (Commissioner Chris Cerf)," Ciattarelli said. "What I felt comfortable with is the process we have in place, whereby once the Commissioner has received an application, a select group of local officials are notified and it's at that time those officials would provide feedback to the Commissioner as to whether the charter school is in the best interest of the community. I don't see a public vote being necessary with that type of process and protocol in place."

Ciattarelli's vote against the bill was in contrast to earlier statements he made expressing support for the legislation. , Ciattarelli said he was in favor of allowing the public to vote before a charter is approved.

"If there is a consensus that a school system is failing there needs to be choices and certainly charter schools provide that," Ciattarelli said in November, 2011. "I don't advocate for charters in those districts that are consistently ranked as excellent. However, legislation that proposes leaving the decision to voters on the ballot is the right public policy. I don't see (a public vote) as crippling the charter movement because there is so much need and room for improvement in those districts performing at a substandard level."

Ciattarelli said when he made that statement he was unaware of the review process at the DOE before a charter school is approved.

"When we spoke at that time, I wasn't cognizant of the process and protocols that are in place," Ciattarelli said. "Now knowing what they are, I'm comfortable that this process serves the best interest of the community."

Public education advocate group Save Our Schools NJ, who has been pushing for passage of the charter school bill, expressed skepticism about the DOE listening to community input before approving a new charter.

"The New Jersey Department of Education historically has not taken community wishes into consideration when approving new charter schools. There are many examples of this," said Save Our Schools spokesperson Julia Sass-Rubin. "For instance, last year, asking the NJ DOE not to grant a second planning year to the Princeton International Academy Charter school (PIACS), which would draw students from those districts.  Less than two weeks after that petition was hand delivered to the NJ Department of Education, .  

"Similarly, the Cherry Hill school district responded to the Regis Academy Charter school application with multiple objections to that school, yet Acting Commissioner Cerf granted Regis a charter, even after external reviewers gave the school very weak ratings."

Princeton resident Dina Lewisohn Shaw, also a member of Save Our Schools, said the current system in place does not provide the proper oversight for charter schools.

"I feel like these people want choice with no responsibility," she said. "At least give us the option to vote because we need to look at everything in these tough economic times. It's interesting that (, yet he wants to say we're not mature enough to have a voice in the education system."

South Brunswick will lose about $1.6 million from state aid for students the state projects to attend charter schools. Even with the PIACS, the district must continue to budget for those students. PIACS has a June deadline to obtain a certificate of occupancy or will need to apply for another planning year extension from the Department of Education.

A companion to bill A-1877 currently in the State Senate is stalled, and has yet to be posted for a hearing. According to NJ Spotlight, the bill faces an uphill battle for approval.

The 16th District's State Senator  before a charter school is approved.

"I think in the right areas charters are part of the solution, but it has to be supported by the local communities," Bateman said last year. "In areas where schools are failing they can play an important role. There are a lot of great charters, but they have to be welcomed by the municipality and the public should have a right to have a say in the matter."

Assemblywoman Simon's office said she would be declining the opportunity to comment on the legislation.

Ciattarelli said he feels it's incumbent on the DOE and local elected officials to make sure the process in place works and that the wishes of the local community are taken into strong consideration.

"The impression that I've gotten in the time I've been representing South Brunswick is that this is a community that feels strongly about what they have, which is a phenomenal public school system," he said. "That being the case, the onus is on any group that feels a charter school is warranted to present a compelling case as to why. This is where the process comes into play that I'm comfortable with. If a group comes in and submits an application to the Commissioner, once we've been notified, I think as elected officials we need to provide feedback that becomes part of the decision making process."

As  Save Our Schools believes this push for new charters could be the deciding factor in determining whether a charter is approved. Rubin said the DOE doesn't listen to community input even when considering the fate of an existing charter school.

"The NJ DOE also ignores community wishes when deciding whether to close a charter school," she said. "For example, the Emily Fisher charter school in Trenton has very strong community and Board of Education support, yet Acting Commissioner Cerf appears to be proceeding with intentions to close the school, despite the students' impressive academic improvements.  So community wishes, or school quality for that matter, do not seem to matter to the Department of Education, when they are deciding to open or close a charter school."

While expressing confidence that the DOE will take the wishes of a community into account during the approval process, Ciattarelli said if this doesn't prove to be the case then it's up to legislators to step in and push for a revision of the process.

"I still believe this is a community decision, but I think they're a part of this process by providing, through their elected officials, information to the Commissioner of Education as to whether a charter school is in the best interest of the community," he said. "In the end, if the Commissioner is approving applications in communities in which the overwhelming majority doesn't want a charter school, then we need to revisit the process."

Do you feel the New Jersey Department of Education listens to the concerns of the community before approving a new charter school? Vote in the poll and share your thoughts in the comments.

I am RIGHT March 28, 2012 at 10:27 AM
Jack and Donna don't represent SB. They are not listening to their constituents, they are listening to the Governor. I appreciate Jack's willingness to explain his decision, but he needs to start listening to the voters. As for Donna, she's got her head buried in the sand. I guess they don't need SB to get reelected. At least PIACS knows where they can go to build their school....straight to Hillsborough........
KnowtheFacts March 28, 2012 at 11:32 AM
PIACS did not receive a third planning year.
madre March 28, 2012 at 11:54 AM
The DOE may claim to listen ... but it's hard to voice an opinion when there is little to no publicizing of the charter application in the first place, First I heard of PIACS was when it was facing the SB Zoning Board vote, first I heard of the Hebrew immersion school in East Brunswick (2 SB children attend) was after it was established. If the DOE wants to rely on public input during the approval process instead of holding a vote, then there needs to be an avenue developed to ensure the public is alerted to the application. I read the papers, I try to stay informed but I guess I don't know where to look to find the hidden-agenda let's not tell anyone items. Ditto for Kyleigh's Law, enacted before anyone had a chance to comment and now the Transportation chair refuses to put any of the amending bills onto the agenda so these never can come up for discussion/vote. Time to change representation.
jane demaio March 28, 2012 at 11:59 AM
Jack and Donna do not represent South Brunswick. Jack's explaination is empty. The Department of Education does not take into consideration local community support or opposition. We, the voters, have a fundamental right to this vote as it is our tax dollars just as every year we vote on a complex school budget. Imagine Republicans taking such a stand: government knows better-leave the decision up to the government. Oh...Christie is behind these folks pulling the strings.
morrigan March 28, 2012 at 12:10 PM
"When we spoke at that time, I wasn't cognizant of the process and protocols that are in place," Ciattarelli said. "Now knowing what they are, I'm comfortable that this process serves the best interest of the community." The process serves the best interest of Chris Christie and his henchmen. Refusing to let the citizens of a community decide on what best serves that community, they support charter schools that will empty the pocketbooks of public school districts and fill the pockets of corporate "educators." The Republicans are not afraid of arm-twisting. Mr. Ciattarelli's statement could very well be a smooth way of responding to his party's unhappiness with his support of a community vote.
Truthteller March 28, 2012 at 01:21 PM
Assemblyman Ciattarelli acknowledges the local opposition yet the DOE issued a Charter. As mentioned a petition with 1200 names delivered to the DOE before extending the Charter. In the article the Assemblyman states if legislators see the current process is not working then they need to step in and modify the process. I agree. Dear Assemblyman what does it take to see there is strong opposition to a school and the process failed? When hundreds of people show up to several zoning board meetings with signs vote no it demonstrates strong opposition. A petition with 1200 names demonstrates opposition. In my opinion you should publicly request the DOE not to renew the PIACS Charter and cite the strong public opposition. In addition the article identifies your recognition that Charter schools may be needed in some areas and not others. I agree. I suggest you sponsor or support a bill that would provide voter approval in districts that are not failing. This would be consistent with the NJ Constitution "Thorough and Efficient" system of education and it is consistent with your comments. In failing districts one could argue the system of education is not through, therefore no vote is needed. In passing districts that argument goes away and voters have a say.
Lisa Levine March 28, 2012 at 01:46 PM
Dina Shaw has it right. The Christie administration pushes for efficiencies in local government -- going as far as financially supporting consolidation in Princeton, but then turns around and promotes charter schools which create a redundancy of services. The party line is we have to save every child we can from the "burning building" that is our failing schools. Charters and vouchers are their answer to the select children who make it into these programs. What we don't hear about are programs for success being pursued in the traditional public schools (and there are many stellar models around the country to look at) which would help the overwhelming majority of students. Just once when Gov. Christie is speaking about education in NJ, I would like to hear him speak about initiatives the DOE is piloting in the traditional public school setting (if there are any) with as much exuberance as he speaks of charter schools and vouchers.
Kelly March 28, 2012 at 02:42 PM
I highly doubt the Assemblyman can offer up any evidence of the State DOE taking community sentiment into account in the decision making process. Commissioner Cerf doesn't even take the recommendations of his own review committee into account. Look at the Regis Academy approval, where the reviewers hired by his department gave the school a score of 43 out of 100 points, yet he approved the school anyway, because the school's director is a Christie ally. This elected official told the voters he would do one thing, and then not long after he was elected, he did the exact opposite. REMEMBER IN NOVEMBER 2012.
Deca March 28, 2012 at 03:06 PM
A few additions to the other stellar comments: •Acting Commissioner Cerf is not elected and clearly feels no need to pay attention to local constituents. Relying on our legislators to voice our opinion to him assumes both that our legislators pay attention to us and that Cerf will listen. A vote is a much more direct way to ensure our voices are heard. Cerf has repeatedly ignored not just opposition but evidence of real deficiencies in applications as well as changed the rules at the end of the game. •the argument that local control would halt the opening of charter schools is tired and old. People are rallying to keep Emily Fisher open today and there are others that would meet the needs of the community at large that could get approved. Special interest, boutique schools might be out. That is a good thing, no? •Zoning Boards have better requirements to advertise their hearings than the DoE has to inform the public about charter school applications. Something is wrong with that. •At the charter school conference in AC this week, Cerf said that there is an increasingly vocal and organized opposition that must be dealt with - he is not interested in listening to local constituents - he wants to 'deal with them' and expand charter schools as much as possible So, finally I would say our elected officials had better decide whether they are accountable to Cerf and his boss, or to the constituents who cast ballots. Then we can decide who to vote for in November.
Larry March 28, 2012 at 03:57 PM
I sent them both an email and told them I wanted the right to vote on thos and they ignored me (actually he told me he would vote for us to have the right to vote and then changed his mind and didn't bother to let me know). I told them that if I didn't get the right to vote on this that I could vote on whether they get to keep their jobs and I would use it to make sure they didn't. It is time for us to get rid of them, they work for us and since they have forgotten that it is now time to get rid of them!!!!
Joe R March 28, 2012 at 04:06 PM
Not only do the residents have absolutely no input as to whether a charter school will be dumped into their district but they also have no vote on the charter budget or the charter school board of directors. A charter school is almost like a school district unto itself not answerable to the local school board yet sucking up funds and resources from the local school district. Charter schools do not have the same percentage of special needs kids or kids with learning disabilities.
Lisa Rodgers March 28, 2012 at 05:25 PM
Amazing... just amazing.... let's see 1) South Brunswick Town Council passes a resolution for local control 2) A 1,200 signature petition was hand delivered to Cerf requesting that the DOE not provide PIACS with another extension 3) A rally was held in multiple towns last June including South Brunswick in support of local control 4)Several Save Our Schools NJ members met personally with Cerf and Carly Bolger to discuss local control including the lack of public notice to residents on new charters. 5) Assemblyman Biondi and DeAngelo supported local control 6) Senators Greenstein,Turner and Bateman all support the bills 7) The Assembly has had this issue in front of them for over one year 8) The Senate Education Committee has been front page news for the past year in that Committee Chair Senator Ruiz has yet to move the bill to a vote so it can go to the Senate Floor (She is Essex county executive's Joe DiVincenzo's Deputy Chief of Staff and DiVencenzo supports charters, as he would like to own one, is one of Christies buddies). BUT - Ciattarelli said he feels it's incumbent on the DOE and local elected officials to make sure the process in place works and that the wishes of the local community are taken into strong consideration and Simon, well who the heck knows,she has no comment - Surprised? It's time they both come to S.B. and hold a town hall explaining why our efforts STILL have not made a difference to the DOE. REMEMBER NOVEMBER!
Jack Wagon March 28, 2012 at 08:18 PM
Joe R - you're correct, and with the 2% cap on our school budget, we also lost the right to vote on the public school budget as well annually. That's unless the board proposes a budget that is > a 2% increase, then we'll have a non-binding vote anyway. The public no longer has individual voices and our only recourse is to vote in board members that will best represent every November. Sounds like a raw deal to me as a taxpayer in SB. Taxation with indirect representation.
Jack Wagon March 28, 2012 at 08:19 PM
Well said! I'll remember in November, for sure!
Save Our Schools NJ March 28, 2012 at 09:45 PM
Senator Bateman has been true to his word. He is a sponsor of both charter reform bills, including the one requiring a local vote before a new charter school can open in a community.
Lisa Rodgers March 28, 2012 at 09:57 PM
Thank You Senator Bateman, Greenstein and Turner!
Plainsboro Parent March 29, 2012 at 11:16 AM
Please provide the link where PIACS applied for and was denied a third planning year. I can't find any news on this.

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