This past Friday (May 1, 2015), counsel for the Highland Park Board of Education filed a notice of appeal with the Appellate Division of Superior Court, challenging the State Commissioner of Education’s recent approval of Hatikvah International Academy Charter School’s application to expand its operations into the middle school grades. The Board will be represented by its special counsel David Rubin, Esq., of Metuchen, an appellate litigation attorney experienced in school law. Mr. Rubin will be working closely with the Board’s General Counsel, Jonathan Busch, Esq., and Douglas Silvestro, Esq., of The Busch Law Group LLC which specializes in the representation of public school boards throughout the State.
Highland Park Board of Education President Adam Sherman stated in a press release: “The impact of the approval of Hatikvah’s expansion on the Highland Park School District is nothing less than staggering. Hatikvah’s enrollment of Highland Park students has already resulted in significant and increasing costs to our taxpayers over the past five years.” Highland Park has the second highest number of students attending Hatikvah, with 21 students currently enrolled costing Highland Park residents $309,824 for the 2014-15 school year. Since Hatikvah’s inception in 2010, the Board has paid Hatikvah a total of $773,739, nearly three-quarters of a million dollars.
Mr. Sherman elaborated further to the Highland Park Planet: “Obviously, we are not the only school district impacted by Hatikvah, but at this point, we are the only one which has chosen to stand up on behalf of its taxpayers. Of course, to the extent that another school district seeks to join us, we would welcome its involvement….While we recognize the complicated nature of appealing an administrative action, we filed the appeal because we believe that there is strong merit to our legal argument, and it was an essential step to take on behalf of the school district and the taxpayers.”
The Board has previously expressed its opposition to Hatikvah’s expansion application, which threatened to intensify the drain on our scarce resources, likely requiring the loss of additional programs and possibly staff. Last year, Hatikvah was denied an expansion request due to a “decline in the school’s academic performance,” among other reasons, after substantial public opposition. The school once again applied for an expansion, even though it had not even filled the 300 seats already approved. The school has not demonstrated an unmet need in the East Brunswick public schools. In fact, according to the East Brunswick School District, Hatikvah’s curriculum has “morphed in many ways into a mirror of the curriculum in the eight East Brunswick elementary schools.”
Hatikvah was originally approved to serve students in East Brunswick, but now draws students from approximately 20 districts spread across several counties. In fact, only 54 percent of Hatikvah’s students come from East Brunswick. The organizers of the school initially claimed that they intended to offer small class sizes in an intimate school setting, but have now abandoned their own educational philosophy to increase the school’s share of school tax dollars. Hatikvah takes far fewer special education, limited English proficient, low-income and minority students than any of the affected school districts, and has become an exclusive boutique institution that does not reflect the communities it claims to serve.
In this appeal, the Board will challenge the reasonableness of the Commissioner’s approval of the school’s expansion, and the procedures by which it was granted which have disenfranchised Highland Park and other districts whose vital resources are at stake. We also will challenge the assessment of tuition from Highland Park for Hatikvah students, which we contend is beyond the scope of the charter school legislation itself. We are hopeful that the court will look favorably on our legal arguments, and will keep the Highland Park community informed as this litigation moves forward.
In a February 3, 2015 letter to the residents of Highland Park, Board President Sherman and Interim Superintendent Israel Soto stated the following:
“It is evident that any expansion will have ever increasing impact on the taxpayers of Highland Park, threatening both the financial strength of the district and the competitiveness of the District’s educational offerings. The Highland Park Board of Education has submitted a Resolution (as did the Highland Park Borough Council) opposing the expansion application to Commissioner Hespe. In addition, our state legislators, Senator Peter Barnes, Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan, and Assemblywoman Nancy Pinkin have sent a letter to the Commissioner asking him to deny the expansion.