North Brunswick School District loses fight against Somerset charter schools

NORTH BRUNSWICK – In North Brunswick Board of Education v. Harrington, three boards of education challenged the decision of the New Jersey Commissioner of Education to permit the Central Jersey Prep Charter School to increase its enrollment, add a satellite campus and move its Somerset campus to a new facility.

According to North Brunswick Superintendent of Schools Brian Zychowski, the issue lies with the facts that a charter school is supposed to be a public school, but North Brunswick taxpayers are mandated by the state to pay for students who attend; and that although the charter schools are meant to be all-inclusive, their practices of admittance are unintentionally segregative.

Zychowski said that during the 2018-19 school year, 130 North Brunswick students attended Central Jersey Prep and 119 students attended its sister school, Thomas Edison Energysmart Charter School, both in Somerset. The projection is at least 275 students, and growing, for next year, he said.

There are also 43 North Brunswick students attending Hatikvah International Academy Charter School in East Brunswick, and another 30 attending the Greater Brunswick Charter School in New Brunswick.

Of the 322 total students enrolled in a charter school, 249 are traveling about 10 miles to the two Somerset schools, or about 77 percent.

Since the state mandates North Brunswick to pay 90 percent of its cost per pupil, which is $12,800, for each charter school enrollment, the cost, including transportation, which comes out of the school district’s budget, is $4.05 million.

Zychowski said that five years ago, the cost, including transportation, was $1.37 million; over four fiscal years, the amount appropriated has increased by $2.7 million.

Zychowski explained that the location of the charter schools in relation to North Brunswick makes transportation difficult. Loading of the bus with the students could take about 20 minutes, plus sometimes a 55-minute drive through New Brunswick and Franklin down Easton Avenue. Since 54 students can travel on a bus, there are five buses that head to Somerset each school day.

He said bidding the transportation route is just as difficult, since a company cannot “tier” the route and the bus is usually left empty the rest of the day.

“It’s a lose-lose proposition for the residents of North Brunswick,” Zychowski said, because North Brunswick does not save money on teachers, cannot close schools and must duplicate services.

He reported that because the enrollment is spread from kindergarten through eighth grade currently, there are no real savings, just a few less children per grade.

“We are duplicating our resources when we don’t have enough resources,” he said.

Zychowski reiterated that he and the school board members “are defenders of public choice … but if you want a private school setting, you have to pay.”

He said he believes the state should fund charter schools as independent public schools.

“Don’t give us the money and siphon off based off the cost per pupil population,” he said.

Zychowski also took issue since 85% to 90% of the students attending Central Jersey Prep and Thomas Edison from North Brunswick are Asian Indian, which he said is segregation in the charter schools’ selection of who they choose to enroll.

He explained that charter schools are supposed to be reflective of their home schools, but North Brunswick is very diverse, so the statistics show otherwise.

He also said special needs students tend to be sent back to North Brunswick since public schools are deemed better suited.

“It’s a poor way to judge how these schools are running,” he said. “I don’t think the intent is to be biased, but the numbers are coming out that way.”

Zychowski made clear he takes no issue with any family which decides to send their child(ren) to a charter school; he said he understands this is how the law is set up.

However, his issues are with the funding and selective nature of the charter school system. In accordance, he said charter schools hand-select their representatives, while public schools hold a public election for school board members.

The history of Central Jersey Prep dates back to when the school was on Finnegans Lane in North Brunswick. The school moved to School House Road in Franklin for the 2007-08 school year. For 2012-13, Central Jersey Prep split two schools on one site, adding Thomas Edison.

During 2013-14, Central Jersey Prep stayed on School House Road, but Thomas Edison moved to Cortelyous Lane. For 2016-17, Thomas Edison moved to Pierce Street in Somerset.

For 2017-18, Central Jersey left School House Road for Mettlers Road in Somerset. Now the schools are pushing for an expansion to include the high school grades, and possibly a new building in New Brunswick, Zychowski said.

According to the aforementioned lawsuit, there was a demonstrated need for expansion as the charter school has a long waiting list, according to information released by the New Jersey School Boards Association.

The commissioner’s decision to approve the charter school’s application promoted the legislative policy of developing charter schools and was supported by the record. Concerning the charter school’s desire for a satellite campus, the court noted that regulations permit a charter school to operate more than one satellite campus in its district or region of residence, subject to charter amendment approval, according to the statement.

The court noted that the total number of applications had dramatically increased over the past few years (465 for the 2014-15 school year and 956 for the 2016-17 school year), and that at the time of the application, there were 628 students on the charter school’s waiting list.

According to the statement, the boards involved argued that the commissioner’s decision was arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable. However, the record indicated the charter school was high performing as noted by its PARCC scores and was on a sound financial footing, as noted by its audits.

The school boards that did not have a charter school within their district’s boundaries also argued they should not be required to pay tuition to the charter school because they are only required to pay tuition where the charter school is within the district’s boundaries, according to the statement.

The court rejected these arguments citing its Piscataway decision, which determined that school boards have an obligation to pay tuition for their students who want to go to a charter school, without regard to whether the school is inside or outside district boundaries. Thus, the court upheld the commissioner-approved expansion of the charter school, according to the statement.

Zychowski revealed that North Brunswick has the option to appeal the decision. He explained that district administrators knew there was a chance of losing the lawsuit, but said they had to show North Brunswick was fighting a $4 million hit.

“There are North Brunswick kids who go there, they’re still our kids, we still have a responsibility to educate them,” he said.
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