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Newark’s decision to appeal state-approved city charter school expansion sparks concern

A school building has a blue sign on the top left corner that reads North Star in white lettering with a white star shape between the two words.

In March 2023, the Newark Board of Education filed an appeal over the state’s decision to approve the expansion of one of the largest charter school networks in the city.

David Handschuh for Chalkbeat

A Newark school board member raised questions about the district’s process for filing an appeal of a state-approved charter school expansion, saying the appeal had been filed without a board vote. 

Crystal Williams, who was elected in 2022, then introduced a motion during Tuesday’s board meeting to withdraw the appeal. Her motion died for lack of a second by any of the other eight members on the board.

In February, the state approved North Star Academy’s charter school expansion of 492 additional seats, increasing enrollment from 7,300 to 7,792 by the 2025-26 school year, according to an approval letter obtained by Chalkbeat. North Star is one of the largest charter school networks in the city with six elementary, six middle, and two high schools. 

But the district appealed the state’s decision in March, saying the charter school does not meet enrollment demands that warrant an expansion, places a financial burden on Newark Public Schools, and creates “a segregative effect” on the public school system, according to the appeal filed in the Superior Court of New Jersey Appellate Division. No court date has been set on the matter, according to the appellate court. 

Newark Public Schools spokesperson Nancy Deering did not respond to comment on the discussion.

North Star’s expansion approval also comes after the state denied several requests for charter school expansions over the last few years.

“We believe that the appeal lacks merit for many reasons, including those in the Commissioner’s approval letter which cite the high achieving results of our students and North Star’s fiscal and organizational strength and stability,” said Barbara Martinez, a spokeswoman for North Star, in an email to Chalkbeat Newark on Wednesday. 

During Tuesday’s board of education business meeting, Williams was the only board member to raise the concerns at the meeting and referenced New Jersey law, which states that “a district board of education or state district superintendent of the district of residence of a charter school may file an appeal.”

“We are under local control,” said Williams. “So this superintendent is not a state superintendent. It has to be voted on by the full board. When he or you decide to do court proceedings without our vote, you’re going around us.”

But Brenda Liss, the district’s general counsel, said “there is no rule that says that an appeal must be acted upon by the Board of Education” and that the law referenced by Williams is not “intended to delineate or address the relationship between the Superintendent and the Board of Education.”

North Star, which has been in Newark since 1997 and operates in the city’s south, central, and west wards, reported an enrollment waitlist of 633 Newark students and 133 non-resident students last year, according to the state’s approval letter. Although the school hasn’t met its maximum approved enrollment, North Star says all schools are at 90% capacity or more, according to the charter schools’ Jan. 2023 letter to the state justifying its need for an expansion. 

“Though North Star is chartered for a higher number of seats in high school, the size of its current facilities makes it impossible to fill high school seats to capacity,” the letter read.

North Star’s letter also noted that “Newark is a growing city” and “should expect more students, more new schools, and with them more school funding.” 

According to the Newark Public Schools budget approved in April, charter school payments make up the district’s second largest expenditure at $353.8 million, an $11.8 million increase from last year. 

For the 2023-24 school year, Newark received an additional $114 million in state aid, or an increase of about 11% from last year.

Kyle Rosenkrans, executive director of the New Jersey Children’s Foundation, in an email to Chalkbeat on Wednesday said Liss’s statements about the district’s appeal process are contrary to state law and go back on the community strides to return Newark schools to local control.

“Newark was once a national model for charter-district collaboration, and no amount of Leon’s rhetorical gaslighting can hide the fact that he has single-handedly squandered the goodwill that many—including its elected school board—spent years to build,” Rosenkrans added.

Jessie Gómez is a reporter for Chalkbeat Newark, covering public education in the city. Contact Jessie at jgomez@chalkbeat.org

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