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In a packed town hall meeting for the municipality of Princeton, a resolution urging that the acting New Jersey Commissioner of Education deny Princeton Charter School’s application to expand passed with only one vote against.

Princeton Charter School educates local children from kindergarten to 8th grade. The council members are Jo Butler, Heather Howard, Lance Liverman, Bernard Miller, Timothy Quinn, and council president Jenny Crumiller, who presides over meetings when the mayor is not in attendance.

The meeting was opened to comments from the public, at which time observers in the crowded room presented objections or encouragements regarding the resolution.

Principal of Princeton Charter School Lawrence Patton said that, contrary to previous claims, rejecting the charter school expansion would have a negative impact. He also affirmed the legal right for charter schools to exist and gave a brief history of charter schools.

“Princeton Charter School is a grassroots charter school not managed by corporate entities,” Patton said at the town hall meeting. “Our purpose for existing is to provide a different option for Princeton parents.”

Patton said that the reason Princeton Charter is requesting permission for an expansion is due to “a community request for greater room in the Princeton Charter School.” According to Patton, an expansion would allow the addition of 76 students over two years, with 54 students added in the first year.

“It will not financially devastate Princeton Public Schools,” Patton said, adding that charter school families also pay taxes and participate in the community and “are also your constituents.”

“Do not feed into the ‘us vs. them’ narrative,” Patton said, to a smattering of applause from audience members at the town hall.

One resident urged the council not to take a position because it “would undermine community togetherness.” Another resident said that he disagreed with the proposal to expand Princeton Charter School because it would affect the entire community, specifically by harming the local public schools.

Still, residents expressed that the charter school offered another option for students in the area because one school doesn’t work for everyone. For many residents, bullying was a major concern.

“We all want what’s best for our kids,” Mayor Liz Lempert said, adding that her heart “is heavy when [she] hears about people experiencing hostility because of where they send their kids to school.”

Superintendent of Princeton Public Schools Steve Cochrane said that the meeting was not intended for the purpose of talking about the educational merits of either institution, but rather about the educational impact that expansion of the charter school would have on all students in Princeton. He said that the expansion would cost Princeton Public Schools $1.2 million each year, which would instead be paid to the charter school every year. According to Cochrane, this cost would force the public schools to cut both teachers and programs – in addition to forcing larger class sizes.

“All of the cuts would be made at the high school where all students who attend the Princeton Charter School eventually matriculate,” Cochrane said, his comment triggering uproar from the crowd filling the room.

The Chair of the Friends of Princeton Charter School read a letter expressing disappointment that city council had not taken the opportunity to meet with them before discussing the resolution.

While one member of the audience expressed favor for the resolution because the expansion would not benefit the community as a whole, another member of the audience expressed concern and criticized the council for holding the vote at all.

“Princeton Charter School is a public school and all the students, unlike the high school, are residents of the town,” she said.

After the public comment session during the town hall meeting, city council discussed the resolution.

Butler recused herself from voting, citing a direct conflict of interest before any comments were made. Miller suggested tabling the resolution, while Howard noted that the deadline for the city comment on the issue was January 31st. Howard also noted that the town would be the fourth municipality after Highland Park, Montclair, and Red Bank to grapple with the issue.

In these times, “your local government is where more and more people are going to turn to,” Liverman said.

“Our constituents have no other outlet for their view to be expressed by the state,” Quinn said, adding that if the charter schools “know the special sauce to combat bullying” then they should be consolidated with the public schools.

Miller, who attended Princeton Public Schools and whose children also attended these schools, said he didn’t have a conflict of interest and is separating his personal opinion from his professional duties. Miller opposed the charter school expansions, but thinks the resolution itself should be delayed. Miller voted nay.

The meeting took place at 7 p.m. on Jan. 23 in the Princeton Municipal Building.

Staff writer Jeff Zymeri contributed reporting.

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