A judge dismissed a lawsuit seeking $100 million in rent from charter schools that have for years occupied space for free in public school buildings.
The lawsuit, filed by parents and advocates nearly two years ago, claimed that the city Department of Education was in violation of state education law by giving city-owned space to privately managed charter schools at no charge. The parents estimated that the annual free ride cost more than $96 million, a total they sought to steer toward hiring more teachers to reduce class sizes after years of budget cuts.
New York State Supreme Court Judge Barbara Jaffe didn’t rule on the fundamental issue of whether charter schools should pay rent. Instead, she ruled that it is not the court’s role to settle disputes over state education law. She said that must first go through the State Education Department, a precedent that was established in the UFT’s 2010 suit against rising class sizes.
But even as Jaffe ruled against the parent groups, she wrote that the concerns they raised were legitimate.
The charter sector has thrived under the Bloomberg administration, which has awarded free space to more than 60 percent of 159 charter schools. The schools are often placed alongside existing schools in a controversial arrangement known as “co-location.”
Critics have said that the policy introduces stark inequities and breeds unnecessary tension, issues that Jaffe suggested were valid.
“There is no dispute that charter schools, through public funding and private donations, have access to more financial resources than those available to traditional public schools,” Jaffe wrote. Those resources, she continued, are used for improvements for charter schools that are “within the full view of traditional public school students.”
“Parents of public school students thus understandably bristle not only at the disparate treatment of the students, but at how open and notorious it is,” Jaffe wrote.
Despite Jaffe’s parting shot, charter school advocates treated the ruling as a decisive victory that would put the controversy to bed.
“We hope that we can now finally move beyond this debate and have serious discussions with all of New York City’s education stakeholders about how to ensure that the city’s students have access to high quality schools in every neighborhood,” James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Sector, said in a statement.
“This is a fundamental victory that preserves quality education options for our students and their parents,” city spokeswoman Erin Hughes said. “Mandatory rent would place a tremendous financial burden on charter schools and in some cases could force closures.”
Seth Andrew, who runs four Harlem charter schools open in public space, said an unfavorable ruling would have had a profoundly negative impact his students.
“For most of our schools, we would have had to close our doors,” said Andrew, who is superintendent of Democracy Prep Public Schools, which also operates two schools in leased private space. Andrew said per-pupil costs in schools in private space is at least $2,000 more than his co-located schools.
The decision comes as the city prepares for a new mayor who may not be as friendly to the charter school sector as Bloomberg has been. Three Democratic candidates have called for a moratorium on co-locations.
A fourth candidate, front-running Speaker Christine Quinn, has said that she would not charged rent to charter schools.
Andrew said that the timing of the court’s decision could send a message to candidates thinking about charging charter schools rent in the future.
“Mayoral candidates who may want to amend the mayor’s policies on co-location now must do so using both a political and a legal lens,” he said.
New York City Parents Union’s Mona Davids, who represents one of two parent groups listed on the law suit, said that she intends to challenge the ruling in court and through the State Education Department.
“The judge is saying that we didn’t exhaust all our remedies, so we will file the petition with King and we will file an appeal on the judge’s decision,” Davids said.