PPS Board of Education and Princeton Charter School disagree over proposed expansion

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Board of Education members discuss the Princeton Charter School’s proposal, a petition to expand the school’s enrollment by 76 students. photo by Annie Kim

On December 1, the Princeton Charter School petitioned the state Department of Education to expand the student body of 348 by 76 students. The proposal also proposed giving lower-income students a 2–1 advantage in applicant lottery.

In response to the proposed expansion, which was made public on November 29, the Board of Education passed a unanimous resolution opposing the petition at the December 13 meeting. Superintendent Steve Cochrane issued a statement opposing it as well, citing the negative effects the proposal would have on the Princeton Public Schools, which includes a loss upward of $1 million in funding.

“I stand in firm opposition to the proposal for the expansion of the Princeton Charter School … because it would undermine the quality of the education [the district] would be able to provide, including to the charter school students who matriculate to PHS,” Cochrane said at the board meeting.

The president of the charter school Board of Trustees, Paul Josephson, and the headmaster of the charter school, Larry Patten, cited multiple reasons in support of expansion—including that the district spends $24,000 per student per year, while PCS spends $15,300 per capita. Additionally, they explained that expansion would alleviate increased in-district enrollment.

In response, Dr. Julia Sass Rubin, a PHS parent and an Associate Professor at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University examining policies that impact low-income communities, argued that the per-student price is because of the district’s higher population of children in lower-income brackets, and those with special needs. The differences in budget include payments for free and reduced lunch, extra staff costs, and transportation costs.

One of the key accusations the district has levelled against the charter board is the short time frame for response; however, Josephson argued that the district has more than enough time to formally respond.

“The district has a 60-day comment period when they can respond [after the December 1 filing],” Josephson said. “If there had been discussion beforehand, you would have heard the same reaction, you would have just heard it earlier.”

Andrea Spalla, the president of the PPS Board of Education, said that Board’s notification was extremely last-minute.

“I had no idea, or even a hint, that the PCS trustees were considering expanding. In fact, in the fall of 2015, I met with the chair of the PCS trustees board, and he assured me several times during that conversation that they had no plans to expand,” Spalla wrote in an email.

However, Josephson described a history of the Board refusing to include PCS in meetings and roundtables.

“For the past three years while I have been the chair of the board of Princeton Charter School, I have been asking the PPS board for opportunities for our board to meet together, to collaborate, to discuss, to respectfully sit together and work together,” he said. “I have offered private meetings and to come to public session of board meetings and discuss the role of the charter school, and quite frankly, I was rebuffed by the board.”

Nonetheless, the district’s decision to not support the expansion proposal, which will be made official in January with an issued statement, is based on what they think is best for the students of PPS.

Bill Hare, a current PHS and PCS parent—and an incoming member of the PPS Board, expressed support of the PPS Board’s decision.

“[Expansion] is going to have a financial impact on the district … What concerns me is how it impacts the programs—at the four elementary schools, John Witherspoon Middle School, and the high school,” Hare said. “Financially, I don’t think it’s good for the district.”

The district and the board are still considering their next steps and their options in opposing the expansion.

“There are multiple strategies we are considering.  Some would be legal, some political, and others, I hope, would involve personal and productive conversations with representatives of the Charter School,” Cochrane wrote in an email. “I am hopeful that the people of Princeton will consider carefully the complexity of the issues.”

While acknowledging that many members of the community are against the expansion proposal, Patten explained that PCS hopes that all community members are open to dialogue.

“My great hope is that there is a respectful understanding of people’s rights, and civility,” Patten said. “I hope that [the pushback] is not pushback without a willingness to have dialogue.”

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