According to court documents filed yesterday by the the three districts have spent a combined total of $44,810.89 in legal fees fighting the opening of the charter school. Of that total, the South Brunswick School District spent $2,178 on legal fees.
PIACS co-founder Parker Block said the suit is basically a restraining order in an attempt to keep the districts from violating state law.
"It became clear to us that the districts will spare no expense to try and keep the school from opening and to deny parents' rights to enroll their kids," Block said. "This is what we've seen from districts all around the state, whether it's blocking facilities or throwing up legal hurdles."
Block added that it's clear from legal invoices that the districts had their attorneys working on legal issues that are not related to the zoning issue (see attached pdf file).
In response to the lawsuit, South Brunswick Superintendent Gary McCartney, Princeton Regional Schools Superintendent Judith Wilson, and West Windsor-Plainsboro Superintendent Victoria Kniewel released a joint press release today.
"The Princeton Regional School District, West Windsor-Plainsboro School District and South Brunswick School District have acted on behalf of ALL children and ALL taxpayers in reviewing and monitoring ALL charter school applications brought before us over the last several years and will continue to do so in years ahead," the release says. "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."
In the court documents filed by law firm Decotiis, Fitzpatrick and Cole, LLP, of Teaneck, on behalf of PIACS, the three districts pursued a rear-guard action to attack PIACS, and expended taxpayer funds in opposition to PIACS in derogation of both their own statutory authority and the Commissioner's legislatively delegated discretion to approve charter schools. The documents stated that these actions "operate to the detriment of children."
A press release sent out yesterday by the charter school stated that PIACS is asking the Department of Education for a reduction in state aid to the districts in an amount that is equal to what has been spent to oppose PIACS.
According to the court documents, PIACS is seeking to have the forfeited state aid redirected to them, for attorney fees and legal costs, and "for such other further relief the Commissioner deems appropriate."
"That's not an important thing," Block said. "If the (Department of Education) commissioner decides not to invoke that penalty it's not an important issue. But when you knowingly break the law there should be some sort of penalty."
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of PIACS and six parents (two from South Brunswick, two from Princeton and two from West-Windsor Plainsboro) from the three districts who are identified by their initials to protect the interests of their minor children enrolled in the three districts, and to prevent retaliation from the three districts or members of the community.
Block said PIACS received an approximately $80,000 federal start-up grant upon its approval in 2010. He said the bulk of that money was used on engineers, attorneys and planners during the school's failed attempt to open at the St. Joseph’s Seminary on Mapleton Road in Plainsboro in 2010.
"Everything we've been doing is privately funded," Block said. "When (the school opening at St. Joseph's Seminary) didn't happen there was no more money (from the grant).
"It's taken a lot of dedication to privately fund all of the things needed to get the school up and running. A lawsuit is the last thing anybody wants to be spending money on. We want to spend money on desks and computers and teacher salaries. The districts are the ones who started spending money on lawyers."
The suit is seeking relief in the form of an order restraining the three districts from using taxpayer money or resources to oppose PIACS. The suit also seeks a judgement stating the three districts have no legal authority to continue opposing PIACS, and that the three districts have failed to expend state funds in "an effective and efficient manner for the implementation of core curriculum standards."
"This is a statewide problem where not enough of our tax dollars are going into the classroom and this is one example," Block said. "We have 600 districts in this state and there is a lot of redundancy with administration overhead and expenses that are wasteful. There's also a lot of hubris that goes into it, that's based upon the fact that school boards in suburban areas are the political heavyweights, and unless the NJEA gets in their way, they feel they can do as they please."
The districts are accused of using taxpayer money to mount a continued and calculated campaign against PIACS and for the hiring of three professionals, including a professional planner and engineer, to provide testimony in opposition of the charter school. The suit alleges that the public effort against PIACS has caused a two-year delay in the school's opening.
When asked whether PIACS bears any responsibility for a lack of organization and clarity throughout the zoning hearings, Block said the process has been made more difficult by the opposition.
"I think to a certain extent this should be a straightforward case, but the school districts are doing everything they can to make this as complicated as possible, so it's made it more difficult to get prepared for these meetings," he said. "So yes we need to step our game up and we will."
The suit accuses the districts of conducting a negative publicity campaign against PIACS in advance of hearings before the South Brunswick zoning board and using public funds to "foment opposition to the application."
The court documents stated that many of the arguments advanced by the oppostion were false and misleading, and had nothing to do with land use issues.
, PIACS attorney Andre Gruber told the zoning board it was not its place to judge whether charter schools are good or bad, but only to judge the merits of the application. Gruber then proceeded to say that no public school in the area offers the same type of education that PIACS offers. Zoning board President Martin Hammer then scolded Gruber, telling the attorney his opening was veering into a dangerous area that would allow the public to question the merits of whether a charter school belongs in South Brunswick by speaking to the education offered by PIACS.
Later in the hearing, former PIACS board of trustee Helena May, who is also owner of applicant 12 P and Associates, testified about how she became involved with PIACS and the merits of the proposed school. Hammer again questioned the direction of the testimony. Hammer chided the applicant for opening up a forum for a debate on charter schools, "that you yourself indicated has no place on this board," Hammer told Gruber. "I don't understand where you're going with this."
The suit also alleges that representatives from all three districts have made statements to the media that were "misrepresentations and outright falsehoods."
Exhibit I in the evidence PIACS plans to present is an article published in where Dr. McCartney is accused of misrepresenting charter schools.
During that interview, Dr. McCartney was asked to give his opinion on charter schools. From the article:
"I think charter schools are a viable option when public schools are not performing," said South Brunswick Superintendent Gary McCartney. "When (Gov. Chris Christie) was campaigning for office, his very clear comment was charter schools where public schools are failing and vouchers as a last resort. I'm dismayed when we're confronted with a charter school opening up and drawing students from three of the highest performing districts in the state."
The suit states that statutory criteria for the approval of charter schools renders the performance of local districts irrelevant.
The suit also alleges that Dr. McCartney misrepresented the budgeting process for charter schools in the article on South Brunswick Patch. During the interview, Dr. McCartney was asked about the accountability of public schools versus charter schools. From the article on April 11:
Dr. McCartney added that there is an accountability factor that exists in the public school system that is absent in charter schools.
"There is a difficult and lengthy process that exists for us to put our budget together and get it approved," McCartney said. "We work hard on that process to gain public approval. We go to referendum to let the public tell us whether they support it. On the other hand, each year the folks at charter schools say this is how many kids we have enrolled, so send us your money."
McCartney said the budget process for charter schools excludes members of the community from having any say in the budget or in the decision making process of a charter school's governing board.
"How can New Jersey have such stringent requirements for getting budgets approved in public schools, but there's no process for the citizens in the town where they draw students from to have a say," McCartney said. "There's also no elective process that places community members on their board of directors like we have with the Board of Education."
The suit states that "charter schools are public entities that are required to conduct their proceedings in public to the same extent as a school district, and the Board of PIACS is, in fact, comprised of members of the community."
From the joint press release issued today by the three districts, the makeup of the boards of education for South Brunswick, Princeton and West-Windsor-Plainsboro versus the board of trustees for the charter school was brought into question.
"As pertains to this particular petition, the Boards are composed of 9 or 10 members, each of whom was elected by the voters," the release says. "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 Boards firmly believe are in the best interests of the Districts and the taxpayers."
Two other articles published by different news outlets are also on the evidence list. Statements made by West Windsor-Plainsboro Board of Education President Hemant Marathe in the July 22 edition of the West Windsor & Plainsboro News (Exhibit M), and statements made by Princeton Superintendent Judith Wilson in the July 26 edition of the Trenton Times (Exhibit N) are also listed as evidence to be presented by PIACS to illustrate alleged misrepresentations by school officials.
The suit alleges that the three districts intervened in pending litigation in East Brunswick against the Hatikvah International Academic Charter School, which did not meet the criteria of 90 percent of maximum enrollment prior to opening. The districts are accused of intervening in a case that will not affect them, but where their sole interest is making sure that the Appellate Division applies the most stringent reading of the regulation so it can be used against PIACS.
"Obviously when there's a lawsuit the plaintiff is viewed as the aggressor," Block said. "This is the equivalent of a restraining order because the districts are the ones maxing out attorney hours to stop another public school from opening. Had that not happened, had they not abused their position in the community, we would not have had to have taken this action."
Block said the next zoning board hearing for PIACS may occur in September, but more likely will occur in October as PIACS still has issues they are seeking to address. Due to the fact that PIACS has accused the districts of attempting to encourage members of the public to insert themselves in the zoning process, Block was asked whether filing a lawsuit would have the same affect by galvanizing the community even further in objection to the charter school.
"I think that's already been done, we don't expect the affect of the lawsuit is going to in anyway diminish those who have already come out," he said.
Block pointed out that the three districts chose not to appeal the charter when it was approved in 2010, and instead used an "end-around."
"We're just asking for a restraining order to get them to stop," he said. "We're the ones, the parents and the children, whose rights are being infringed upon and are under attack. I hope people understand that."
In the joint release by the three districts, it is stated that all parties have a right to be heard in the zoning process.
"Ultimately, it is up to the Zoning Board and the Commissioner to make a decision on final approval of this charter school, but the Boards have a right to be heard," the release says. "The Boards will not let this lawsuit or anything else silence that right. The Boards are fully behind and endorse all actions taken by their attorneys in representing the Districts before both the Commissioner and the Zoning Board, and in pending amicus litigation. We are confident that the Boards’ legal authority to take these actions is well supported in law and that the current PIACS petition will ultimately be dismissed."
Block said no timeframe has been established yet for the Department of Education to hear the case, but through correspondance with both the national and state charter school associations, this trial is expected to be a landmark case.
"This is important for us because we're in a heated battle," he said. "We see that this is an important case for both the state and the country."
The PIACS Debate
Click here to learn more about the issues surrounding PIACS and a private school that has been proposed to share the 12 Perrine Road location with PIACS. The private school, YingHua International School, was founded by PIACS lead founder Dr. Bonnie Liao.