RED BANK: BIG GUNS FILE CHARTER APPEAL

By JOHN T. WARD

HOT-TOPIC_03As signaled last month, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey has gone to court with two other organizations hoping to pull the plug on the Red Bank Charter School.

For the second time this century, it’s also brought in a marquee-name civil rights lawyer to help in the effort.

The ACLU announced late Wednesday that it had filed court documents about its intent to appeal the state Department of Education’s February 28 decision granting the school another five years to operate.

The case was filed at the appellate division of the state Superior Court in Trenton Tuesday on behalf of a group of borough parents calling themselves Fair Schools Red Bank and the Freehold-based Latino Coalition of New Jersey.

They claim the DOE “rubber-stamped” the charter extension despite “clear signs of racial segregation” of public school children in the borough, in the words of Latino Coalition director Frank Argote-Freyre.

Charter school officials, however, contend the 200-student K-through-8 has a diverse student population that reflects the borough’s school-aged population.

The notice of appeal was signed by Lawrence Lustberg of the Gibbons PC law firm, a well-known criminal defense and civil rights lawyer. Lustberg has litigated a number of high-profile civil rights and constitutional law cases, including a pioneering same-sex marriage case in New Jersey.

The charter school case is reminiscent of one from 2001, when the borough school district challenged the charter school’s bid to expand by adding classes for kindergarten through third grade. The ACLU took the borough’s side in the case, and Lustberg was an author of the district’s legal brief in the matter.

That case, also based on arguments about segregation and financial impacts on the district, resulted in a 2004 appellate court ruling that upheld both the expansion and a charter renewal by the DOE.

Charter school officials have contended that Fair Schools Red Bank and the Latino Coalition are attempting to re-litigate matters settled in that case.

School Principal Meredith Pennotti did not immediately respond to a request from redbankgreen for comment about the Tuesday’s filing. Last month, in response to news that the ACLU would get involved, Pennotti said in a statement that school officials “fully anticipated that these groups would continue their assault,” even after the state’s renewal.

She added that “with so much segregation in New Jersey schools, it’s ironic that the ACLU would target one of the few schools in the state that is racially and ethnically integrated.”

Pennotti said last month that the charter school’s enrollment is “53 percent black and Latino, not majority white as the ACLU incorrectly claims,” and that acting Education Commissioner Kimberley Harrington took the discrimination allegations into consideration when she reviewed and approved the charter renewal application.

Citing enrollment data from the New Jersey Department of Education for the current school year, Fair Schools Red Bank and the Latino Coalition claim that Latino children make up 82 percent of the borough school population, but just 44 percent of the charter school’s. Whites make up just 8 percent of the borough schools, but 43 percent of the charter school, the plaintiffs contend.

The two groups filed a joint complaint last November asking the civil rights division of the federal Department of Education to “investigate and ultimately remedy” enrollment and funding practices at charter school that they claim make the borough’s public schools the “most segregated” in New Jersey. The agency said in January that it was investigating the claim.

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