Yasmine Petrocelli hopes to continue her education at one of Hoboken’s three charter schools, the Hoboken Dual Language Charter School (HoLa), when she enters seventh grade this August. But if the Board of Education raises enough money to file a court motion to stop the school from expanding, that may not happen.
“Every day, I go into class feeling very excited to speak and learn through a second language, and every year I get better and better at speaking this language,” wrote Petrocelli in a letter read by her mother Sonia at Tuesday night’s Hoboken Board of Education meeting. “Please do not stop my school from going to seventh and eighth grade. I want to continue there and master my bilingual immersion education.”
The board voted Tuesday to continue its lawsuit against the expansion of HoLa, though it will not devote any additional public funding to the effort. The move will instead be funded by private donations. However, public funding may still be tied up in the effort, as the charter school will defend itself in court.
In a resolution approved by a vote of 6 to 2, the board authorized its “special counsel to take any and all appropriate action to pursue appellate review” of a late March ruling by state education commissioner David Hespe reaffirming his office’s approval of the expansion.
After the school board filed a legal challenge to HoLa’s expansion to seventh and eighth grade last year, alleging that it would be detrimental to the finances and diversity of the traditional public schools, Hespe requested a chance to re-examine the district’s demographic data. Last month, he closed his investigation, arguing that HoLa had no demonstrable segregative effect on the Hoboken school district.
Hoboken interim superintendent Dr. Richard Brockel differed with the ruling, stating that it “ignores the socioeconomic impact of the proposed expansion” and “relies on flawed census population data.” On Tuesday, a majority of the school board agreed with him, calling continuing the legal fight an unsavory but necessary step to protect the students of Hoboken’s five traditional public schools.
A parade of HoLa parents and officials rose at the meeting to criticize the lawsuit as divisive and doomed to future defeats in court.
“That is why there is a court system, so that these kind of things can be figured out.” – Ruth Tyroler
Martinez emphasized that, though the school board’s appeal would be funded privately, her own school’s legal defense would continue to be funded with taxpayer money. Between the two sides, she said, $100,000 in public funding had already been spent on the case.
According to school board counsel Marie-Laurence Fabian, the appeal process will not begin until private donations specifically designated for the lawsuit are received by the board. At least two school board members said they would be donating on Tuesday.
According to Eric Harrison, the school board’s special attorney for the HoLa matter, the board has until May 4 to file a notice of appeal in state court.
If they file an appeal, Harrison said, he will also file a motion to stay HoLa’s seventh grade expansion before the 2015-16 school year begins, meaning the 21 students slated to enter seventh grade would have to find another place to go.
Glimpses of growing fatigue
Though it ultimately resulted in a renewed lease for the legal fight against charter school expansion, Tuesday’s school board meeting clearly illustrated the growing fatigue among Hoboken taxpayers and parents over the lawsuit and its political penumbra.
None of the school board members argued that public money should fund further legal actions, suggesting that the idea has become repugnant to a majority of taxpayers.
Even board trustee Dr. Leon Gold, who has been one of the strongest advocates of pursuing the HoLa lawsuit, stated that “the school [district] cannot afford to pay for an appeal.”
Even more tellingly, none of the three school board members elected last November, the first election since the HoLa lawsuit was filed, voted in favor of its continuance, even without public funding.
Trustee Peter Biancamano has opposed the lawsuit from its outset and reiterated his arguments this past week, stating that he could “not in good conscience vote for an appeal that’s causing a divisive nature in our community.”
Freshman trustee Sharyn Angley said she had received over 100 emails from HoLa parents in the 24 hours leading up to Tuesday’s meeting, and implored those parents to look at the issue from a different perspective.
“As growth takes place in the charter schools, the district is required by the state to pay the charter schools more money without receiving additional funding to cover those costs,” said Angley. “If the tables were turned, would you be willing to give up funding for your students so that district students could have more?”
Yet, Angley voted against further legal action, arguing that a solution to the conflict over charter expansion could only come from increased funding for both the charter and district schools by the state and through municipal tax increases.
Angley’s slatemate Monica Stromwall, the third board trustee elected last fall, was absent from the meeting. First appointed to the board last January, Stromwall voted twice to fund the HoLa lawsuit last year, but said during her fall election campaign that she would “not support any more money for the legal action against the state/Hola.”
Stromwall did not respond to a request for comment this past week. An automated email response indicated that she was out of the country on vacation.
Legal issues in play
The school board majority that voted in favor of continuing the HoLa lawsuit emphasized their belief that the state Department of Education was failing to enforce its own laws.
Two crucial state statutes are in play: one, requiring that the education commissioner annually “assess the student composition of a charter school and the segregative effect that the loss of the students may have on its district of residence,” and another requiring that “the admission policy of the charter school shall…seek the enrollment of a cross section of the community’s school age population including racial and academic factors.”
In his March 20 ruling, Hespe based his finding that HoLa had no segregative effect on the fact that the proportion of white students in Hoboken public schools had increased modestly since HoLa was opened in 2010 rather than falling.
However, HoLa has consistently had a higher proportion of white students and lower proportion of black and Hispanic students than the school district at large.
Hespe’s ruling also made no mention of the relative diversity of HoLa and the district schools based on socioeconomic status, which school board members argued was one of the most important, if not the most important, “academic factor” affecting students.
“I feel that this is a civil rights violation that’s going on in our community today,” said school board president Ruth Tyroler, “and I think it’s the responsibility of the Department of Education to do what they need to do to make sure that we have a system that distributes our different populations throughout our district children.”
Opponents of the school board’s actions have noted that the district itself has de facto segregation, as the Connors elementary school has a much higher population of minority students than the other buildings.
The state knows
Many of the HoLa supporters who spoke emphasized that the Department of Education had ruled the same way twice on HoLa’s expansion, and that their expertise should be trusted.
“They’re very smart people at the Department of Education; it’s not just a bunch of people sitting there,” said Martinez. “You got to submit your facts, we submitted our facts, they did their research, and you just didn’t like the answer that they came back with.”
The school board members maintained that an appeals court was the appropriate venue to resolve its quarrel with HoLa and the state.
“You disagree, we have our thoughts – that is why there is an Appellate Division,” Tyroler said to the HoLa contingent. “That is why there is a court system, so that these kinds of things can be figured out.”
Something to lose
Legal rationales aside, the Hoboken school board’s decision to continue its lawsuit, as well as the impassioned pleas of HoLa parents to halt it, indicate something fundamental about why the charter school debate has perpetuated in Hoboken – both sides have something clear and substantial to lose.
For school board members and parents of students in district schools, it is the loss of funding due to HoLa’s expansion and the damaging cuts to faculty and educational programming that school administration officials say are likely to follow.
Under state law, charter schools are funded from the tax levy of the district they are located within based on a set formula.
Though the projected increase in district payments to HoLa for the upcoming school year – the first with a seventh grade – amounts to less than 1 percent of the total district budget, it is equal to a quarter of the proposed tax levy increase for that year.
With increased teacher and staff salaries eating up much of the remaining tax increase and a hard cap on how much taxes can be raised in future budgets, the district business administrator has said painful cuts may be unavoidable as soon as next year.
“With its decision,” said school board trustee Jennifer Evans, “the Department of Education is saying it’s OK to take away funding from a district that supports our community’s most vulnerable children – not just those living in poverty but those with special needs.”
For some HoLa students, the potential loss is even more discrete – the chance to continue attending a school they love for two more years. HoLa teaches almost every subject in both English and Spanish, and its students have performed well on state tests.
Where will the money come from?
It remains unclear exactly how much money will be required to continue the lawsuit. During Tuesday’s meeting, board trustee Leon Gold gave an estimate of $40,000, although trustee Tom Kluepfel said he understood it would cost “significantly less” than that sum to file an appeal in state court.
A total allotment of $50,000 covered the services of special counsel Eric Harrison from March 2014 until now.
Both Gold and Kluepfel said they would donate to the appeal effort, and a district parent at the meeting said he would chip in as well.
“Nobody in here is probably a stronger advocate for parental school choice than I have been for the past fifteen years or so,” said Kluepfel, who was one of the founders of the Elysian Charter School.
Kluepfel called donating to the HoLa lawsuit “as right as the tens of thousands of dollars we spent in founding Elysian Charter School all those years ago…this always was about providing quality education alternatives to our low-income kids, and that remains the issue today.”
Although she did not discuss it at the meeting, a school board trustee stated in a post on an online forum for Hoboken parents that the resolution approved Tuesday was prompted because “a group of current and former district parents, aware of the financial circumstances and concerned about this civil rights issue, came forward to offer funding for an appeal based on NJ State and Constitutional Law.”
If such a group does exist, their names will likely become public soon – according to Hoboken school district policy, gifts to the district of more than $100 in value must be listed in the monthly school board meeting agenda and approved by the board.
According to Gold, a donation to the school board could remain anonymous “only if you leave an envelope of cash on the doorstep of Hoboken.”
Carlo Davis may be reached at email@example.com.