On appeal from the New Jersey Department of Education.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Messano and Yannotti.
Tracey Williams (Williams), a member of the Quest Academy Charter School of Montclair Founders Group (Quest), appeals from a final determination of the Acting Commissioner of Education (Commissioner), dated January 18, 2011, denying Quest's application for approval of a proposed charter high school in the Township of Montclair (Township). For the reasons that follow, we affirm.
In October 2010, Quest submitted an application to the Commissioner, seeking authorization to open a charter high school in the Township. It appears that Quest had previously submitted applications seeking approval of its proposed school, but those applications were found to be deficient. As required by N.J.S.A. 18A:36A-4(c), the application was provided to the Township's local school board of education for its review and recommendation.
The Department of Education (DOE) evaluated the application and advised Quest by letter dated December 6, 2010, that certain sections were incomplete, insufficient or unclear. The DOE noted its concerns regarding special populations, assessments, facilities, governance, and admissions. The DOE gave Quest Academy an opportunity to address these concerns by submitting addenda to the application.
In addition, Frank R. Alvarez, Ed.D. (Dr. Alvarez), the superintendent of the Township's schools, sent a letter dated December 6, 2010, to Acting Commissioner Rochelle Hendricks, commenting on Quest's application. Among other things, Dr. Alvarez stated that, based on Quest's enrollment assumptions, $2 million in funding would be diverted from the budget for the district's schools, which would be "devastating." Dr. Alvarez also said that Quest's application had conflicting information regarding course requirements, did not fully address New Jersey's revised high school graduation requirements, and failed to specify a process for curriculum development in the nine areas of New Jersey's core curriculum content standards.
On December 14, 2010, Williams submitted additional information to the DOE in support of its application. The DOE reviewed the information. The DOE evaluators also met with Quest representatives on January 3, 2011, to discuss the application. By letter dated January 18, 2011, the Acting Commissioner advised Quest that the application was denied.
On February 24, 2011, Williams filed a notice of appeal from the Acting Commissioner's decision. Thereafter, Carly Bolger (Bolger), Director of the DOE's Office of Charter Schools, filed pursuant to Rule 2:5-1(b) an amplification of the reasons for the denial of Quest's application.
Bolger noted that the proposed charter high school would be located in a small school district, which was presently served by only one high school and subject to a desegregation order. Bolger stated that the Acting Commissioner questioned Quest's ability to attract a sufficient number of students from the district, and was concerned that an additional high school "could undermine the prior success of the [d]istrict's integration efforts."
In addition, Bolger noted that Dr. Alvarez had recommended denial of Quest's application because it contained "multiple inaccuracies" and because it "misrepresented" the district's current program and the proposed charter school program. Bolger pointed out that Dr. Alvarez stated that the staffing plan for the charter school "did not fully provide for the extensive course offerings proposed" and failed to specify a process for curriculum development in nine of the State's core curriculum content standards. Dr. Alvarez stated that the proposed charter high school would have a negative impact upon the district's budget.
Bolger also noted that the Acting Commissioner had received "numerous unsolicited letters" from members of the community, who raised concerns as to the capability and qualifications of Quest's founders; the potential negative impact on the quality of programs and educational offerings at the district's schools as a result of the diversion of resources; the lack of community support for or interest in an additional high school; strong community support for the existing high school; and the lack of an adequate facility to house the proposed high school.
In addition, Bolger pointed out that the Acting Commissioner "was apprehensive" about Quest's educational plan. The DOT noted that Quest's plan incorporated "many different strategies, programs, and philosophies, but failed to present these varied ideas as a comprehensive and fully integrated educational school program." ...