Addressing the crowd at a recent news conference at the New Jersey Department of Education in Trenton is Darcie Cimarusti, president of the Board of Education in Highland Park, N.J., a community being affected by charter expansion. (Sue Altman)

Princeton Charter School in New Jersey was founded in 1997 and immediately become a point of controversy between supporters of  traditional public schools and those who think it provides an option for parents and their children. Recently, the school — the only charter in the town of Princeton — became a flash point again when its leaders decided they wanted to expand.

This post explains what happened and how the community is being affected by the request for charter expansion. This was written by Sarah Maraniss Vander Schaaff, a freelance writer who has penned some extraordinary pieces for The Washington Post. She wrote this about her struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder, and this piece about how obsessive-compulsive disorder affected the life of one young man and his struggles to get through school. In another post for this blog, she wrote about a mother who realized that her young son — who threw a computer at his teacher in second grade — was mentally ill and the help she got him and other children.

By Sarah Maraniss Vander Schaaff

Attack. Battle. War. Devastation. Vandalism. Vitriol. Whisper campaigns. This is not the stuff of Washington, this is the language coming from parents in Princeton, N.J.

The issue, depending on whom you ask, is the integrity of public education, school choice, democracy, money, or common courtesy.

What is clear is that late last year, the town’s only charter school filed a request with New Jersey’s Education Department to add a weighted lottery and expand enrollment by 76 students over the next two years. The acting commissioner of education approved the plan in early March.

An appeal, two lawsuits, and a counter lawsuit are pending. New yard signs have popped up voicing support for the district’s traditional schools. And many wonder how neighbors who have slung insults at each other on the Internet will be able to sit on the same bleachers at their children’s softball games.

For a community dedicated to education and diversity — the Princeton public schools are consistently among the top in the state and nearly a quarter of the students speaks one of 55 languages at home — the past several months have been painful and, in some ways, challenged the self-image of a town that prides itself on being rational.  This is, after all, the place where bumper stickers once announced, “My Congressman IS a rocket scientist.”

While some of the most intense debate has settled down, it would be a stretch to say wounds have entirely healed. And what has happened in Princeton, perhaps, is a cautionary tale: If this town faced a maelstrom, what town wouldn’t?

The clock started ticking on Dec. 1, the moment that the leadership of Princeton Charter School submitted an 18-page letter to the state commissioner of education. The district, caught off guard by what they say was a “midnight raid” on its budget, responded on two fronts: first, they met privately with charter leadership hoping to blend resources by moving the charter to a magnet program. Second, they hand-delivered a 140-page statement of opposition to the state commissioner of education.

The charter hoped the weighted lottery and increased enrollment would help it better meet its mission to serve economically disadvantaged students, who represented 1.44 percent of the charter’s enrollment in contrast to 12.2 percent in the district’s other schools.

The current charter funding formula of $15,339 per student meant that adding 76 more pupils would also bring with it about $1.2 million in additional funds. Growth at the high-performing charter would allow it to educate more students, increase faculty and make improvements to its facility.

But those opposed, including the school board, the mayor, the superintendent and the 3,400 people who signed an online petition, contended the district could not afford to send the charter $1.2 million more each year. The figure represents roughly 10 percent of its discretionary budget, a budget already strained by the 2 percent cap on tax increases the governor placed on school districts, as well as by fixed costs and rising health-care expenses. Expanding the charter would mean cuts to staff and programs for the 3,500 or so students in the district’s six traditional schools. And adding 76 students to the K-8 charter school was not a simple matter of shifting equal resources; they could educate these 76 within their own infrastructure for about $120,000.

Finding a reasonable compromise before the commissioner’s ruling was what resident Walter Frank had in mind when he wrote a letter to the editor of the local paper, Town Topics, in February. Frank, a retired lawyer who served on the school board 20 years ago, reminded residents that “Princeton likes to think of itself as a leader, a bit of a city upon a hill.” A decision by the state department of education would invariably lead to a portion of the community feeling aggrieved, he predicted, with prescient accuracy. “We decry the inability in Washington to resolve differences. Perhaps we can show them how it’s done.”

By most accounts, the battle became a zero-sum equation.

The state’s charter laws are to blame for that, said Amy Craft, a mother of two middle school-aged children, and an economist. For either side to win, whether it was in money, reputation, or resources, the other needed to fail.

The competitive stakes that positioned one side against the other made the process “horrible,” she said.

Craft joined an ad hoc parent organization dubbed Keep Princeton Public Schools Strong. The group mobilized parents with an active Facebook page and raised more than $1,800 through GoFundMe to print material and buy newspaper ads.

There was an incredible sense, Craft said, “that we have to get organized quickly.”

Liz Winslow Schartman, who has children in both the traditional district school and the charter school, and who advocated in favor of the expansion on social media, felt hostility from those she describes as “anti-charter.” The arguments cut to the morality of her position: Charter is stealing from our students; Charter is selfish. How, she wondered, could she counter if that was the premise? For her, the charter school met the needs of her child who had slipped through the cracks at the traditional school.

Her well-intentioned act of distributing fliers to encourage charter enrollment in an underrepresented neighborhood was spun through what she called a rumor mill. Someone said she was distributing, “anti-public school propaganda.”

The past several months have been stressful, she said, and she’s tired of wondering if she’ll see a personal attack from a stranger every time she looks on Facebook.

Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert heard from both sides, but primarily from those opposed to the expansion. People are understandably passionate, she said, when the subject is education and their own children.  More emails flooded her office than she’s seen in four years as mayor, a fact that surprised her because in this decision, she had no authority.

The state department of education had that authority, as the sole authorizer under New Jersey’s charter school law. The number and composition of authorizing entities can vary by state. Maryland, for example, with roughly the same percentage of students in charter schools as New Jersey — has 5. Colorado, with a percentage four times greater than New Jersey’s, has 45 authorizers. New Jersey’s single state authorizer is less than ideal, according to the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, which has an online rating by state, because, “the level of authorizing activity has historically varied in the state from one commissioner to the next.”

The pendulum, under the administration of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, is very much on the side of school choice.

In the wake of the national election that stoked fears over the fate of public schools, the dynamic of state control over local school budgets evoked a weighty phrase from those opposed to charter expansion. The policy was “taxation without representation”.

As an economic policy, Craft said, this leads to a discouraging or chilling effect on communities, the sentiment being: If my money is not going to be used for my district the way I want it to be, then I won’t pay those high taxes.

And in principle, the process is undemocratic, according to Patrick Sullivan, who took office as school board president just as the controversy revved up in January.

“Our country is founded on people coming together in a public forum and making decisions as a community,” he said.

But that dialogue, according to Mara Franceschi, the PTO president of one of the district’s traditional elementary schools, never happened.

“There is no means for us to have a voice,” she said. “That only gives you the option to, in essence, take to the streets, which does put you against your neighbor in a confrontational manner because there is no more polite way to do it.”

The message from the superintendent down, however, was that the debate should not involve the kids, Franceshi said. The schools needed to maintain a welcoming environment because many families had children in both the charter and the traditional district schools. And by ninth grade, everyone feed into the district’s single high school.

Still, the level of vitriol on the Internet reached a level that shocked Steven Fu, a parent who bridged both sides of the district’s schools, with children at the charter and the high school.

“When this charter debate is over, our kids could be playing in town little league and you’ll meet me and treat me very well — yet on the Internet you treated me harshly,” he said shortly after the commissioner’s decision. “It baffles me that people are not thinking about what happens tomorrow when we wake up.”

He’s disappointed, he said, to see smart people abandon the methods for conflict resolution they teach in schools or at home and calling the current system unfair because one person in Trenton makes it seemed a dubious criticism.

“If that same individual had come down on the other side then they would have felt, ‘this is great — we won.’ ”

Paul Josephson, president of the charter school’s Board of Trustees, said there is probably more in common between the two sides than not. But the relationship between charters schools and their parent districts took a turn in 2008, when funding began moving from the state to the districts and monetary caps were set per pupil. The change put more burden on local districts and left charters with their funds per student frozen, essentially, at 2008 levels.

“We need to work together to provide a better funding mechanism that works better for the district and for the charter schools. Unfortunately, the issue has gotten so politicized that every year it’s a battle of extremes … ”

The $1.2 million dollars came to represent, for both sides, the educational opportunities they were defending.

To board president Sullivan, moving more money away from the district’s traditional schools to the charter school was a form of vandalism; a willingness to take apart a school system to benefit a small number of the children. PTO President Franceshi said she worried about when the tipping point would come, when so much money is siphoned from traditional district schools that more and more parents head to charters. Mayor Lempert said she saw that kind of depletion firsthand growing up in California. She entered the system when the schools were among the best in the country, and graduated after Proposition 13 cut funding and left them nearly “decimated.”

But with a budget of more than 90 million, the $1.2 million headed to charter is not, “financial Armageddon for the district by any stretch,” Josephson said. Previous expansions have caused turmoil but within 2 or 3 years, things moved on. It is the charter school that needs the funding to stay alive and thrive.

As for the students, Elliot Wailoo, a senior who has covered the issue for the student newspaper since it began, said other issues in recent memory have been more controversial. His peers were more engaged last spring when some students were caught playing a racist drinking game. This past fall, they were gripped in sensitive discussion when a freshman died by suicide. And two years ago, they staged a walkout of classes when the school board and teacher union were stuck in divisive contract negotiations. They might become more involved, Wailoo speculated, if budget issues mean popular programs are cut.

As of now, they have not. The district recently passed its budget for the upcoming school year utilizing “banked tax levy cap waivers” to meet expenses. But those waivers are helpful only in the short term, superintendent Steve Cochrane said. Popular programs were not necessarily cut in next year’s budget, but initiatives were eliminated: hiring more staff at the high school, a coordinator for equity and outreach, learning consultants and support for student’s mental health and well-being.

The additional money being sent to the charter school each year has an impact, Cochrane said.

“That’s why we’re in court.”

There are, in fact, several cases pending. The Latino Coalition of New Jersey filed a complaint against the charter school with the Department of Justice. The district filed one against the charter leadership, claiming they violated the state’s sunshine laws by failing to notice public meetings early in their expansion process. And the charter filed a countersuit, claiming the district has violated the act for years, and proved it by not announcing their meeting to discuss filing a lawsuit against them.

Franceshi said she tries to understand and respect her friends who are supportive of the charter expansion. But when they say the “whole town is against them,” she comes back to the same timeline.

“They started this process, drove this process, and have all the power in this process.”

For some, however, the story goes back even further.

There seems to be an integral blemish on the charter’s very inception in a district as strong as the one in Princeton. It’s one that Sullivan articulates with fundamental questions: What is the educational deficiency that this charter school exists to remedy? Where are the charter school resources coming from and at what cost to the school and community as a whole?

Josephson, for his part, wishes there were more conversations and opportunities for collaboration, but acknowledge the strained relationship.  The district has tolerated the charter school, he said, but they have, “hardly embraced it.”

“There is nobody more distraught over frayed community relationships between the charter school and the district than the children and parents of a charter school because we kind of are on the short end of the stick,” he said. “And having a construct that excludes you from the larger community is something that none of our parents like.”

The recent weighted lottery was a success, he said. He’s hopeful the community will recognize the charter school made good on the intention behind expansion.

Working together may help another issue, Josephson said, referring to the complaint that the charter’s expansion proposal caught the district off guard.

“When you don’t put someone in the corner, there are very few surprises.”

The last several months have exposed roots of an ancient grudge, much like the prologue of another story that set two dignified households against each other.

In this town, there is no party at the Capulet’s house, just a dance at the end of eighth grade held at the district middle school.

The word among some at the charter school is that their kids are not invited, but students from another school that feeds into the high school are asked to come.

It’s a source of hurt feelings and symbolic of the feud.

And, according to the co-president of the middle school PTO, Dina Shaw, it’s not true.

The middle school does hold what they call a “promotional” dance at the end of eighth grade, an event the graduating class organizes and largely pays for through fundraising. The dance is considered a small party to cap off middle school, she said, not an orientation in preparation for high school, and no guests from other schools are allowed.

But if parents at the charter are confused about the dance, she said, or if they’d like to host a party for all the eighth graders, they should call her.

No one, she said, “has ever asked me.”