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Taking DOE to court, parents resurrect battle over co-locations

Lawyers for the Department of Education were back on the defense in Judge Paul Feinman’s courtroom on Thursday morning to argue a new twist on an old charter school co-location debate.

A new lawsuit argues that more than 80 charter schools sited in public school buildings have gotten free rides on facilities expenses such as utilities and building maintenance. Parent groups who brought the lawsuit earlier this summer are suing want the DOE to collect more than $100 million in rent money that they say should have been charged.

Today’s hearing on the lawsuit, which did not yield an immediate decision, comes less than two months after the same judge rejected the United Federation of Teachers and NAACP’s request to halt all charter school co-locations. That lawsuit argued that the co-location plans favored the charter schools.

In today’s hearing, arguments focused on the city’s policy, in place since 2003, that lets charter schools share space free of charge. Eighty two charter schools are now occupied in public buildings that house an estimated 27,500 students, according to court papers.

New York State charter law, first written in 1999, states that charter schools can be located within a public school building “at cost” based on what they are charged to rent, lease or own private or public space. How much “at cost” should be worth – if anything at all – was a major source of disagreement between the sides.

Arthur Schwartz, arguing for the plaintiffs, said in court that the charter schools in public school buildings should have to pay for the per-pupil costs because it provided them with inequitably favorable resources at a time when district schools are forced to cut their budgets.

“It gets at the heart of some of the disparities of the tales that we’ve heard in the schools,” Schwartz told Feinman.

Schwartz cited an Independent Budget Office report that concluded that charter schools received more per-pupil funding because of costs that weren’t factored into its budget. Schwartz used the number to tally the $100 million bill. A plaintiff on the suit, Noah Gotbaum, clarified that they would likely have to recalculate based on more precise estimations.

Defendants representing charter schools in the lawsuit vigorously rejected the totals filed in court papers DOE lawyers argued that even if the totals were accurate, they were in no way required to charge charter schools money for these expenses in the first place. “At cost,” they said, only applied if the DOE had contracts with the charter schools and none of them were.

In a joint statement put out by Kerri Lyon, a spokeswoman for the New York City Charter Center, 13 schools named in the lawsuit criticized the lawsuit as politically-charged.

“The simple truth is that district schools get facilities funding while charter schools don’t. Forcing public charter schools to pay rent would create enormous inequities and force the closure of some of the highest performing schools in the city.”

More than a dozen charter school operators named in the lawsuit also testified that, if forced to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars that was being asked of them, they’d be forced to severely cut staff and, in some cases, close their schools.

Feinman ordered another hearing date for Sept. 28. A person involved in the lawsuit said that it was unlikely that the judge would take immediate action because it would disrupt the school year.

“Whatever happens, it’s unlikely that the charter schools are going to be immediately given a bill for $100 million next week,” the source said.

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