01/03/2012

By Geoff Decker

A judge today rejected a midyear effort to collect more than $100 million in rent and facility fees from co-located charter schools.

The ruling is at least a temporary blow for parent activists who filed a lawsuit last year that challenged a long-standing Department of Education policy to give rent-free public school space to charter schools. The judge hasn’t ruled on that larger issue, but he said today that the merits of the lawsuit weren’t strong enough to immediately force the DOE to begin collecting rent before a final decision is made.
“It would be extremely harmful to wrench charter school students from their school of choice during a school year, should any charter school be unable to pay for renting public school space, forcing these students to seek placement elsewhere,” New York State Supreme Court Judge Paul Feinman wrote in his decision today.

About two-thirds of the city’s 136 charter schools are currently sited in public space and the lawsuit claims that the DOE has an obligation, based on state law, to charge rent. Class Size Matters’ Leonie Haimson, a lead plaintiff on the lawsuit, has estimated that the DOE has lost out on more than $100 million, which she has said could be used to reduce class sizes by hiring more teachers.
New York City pioneered the co-location policy under former Chancellor Joel Klein and it is still one of the only districts in the country that offers rent-free public space to charter schools. Charter school groups have defended the policy, saying that while charters schools are publicly funded, they don’t receive money for facility costs.

Charter school operators named on the lawsuit are defending themselves independently from the DOE, using the same high-powered law firms it used for another lawsuit. Today, one of those operators lauded the decision.

“Today’s ruling is a major victory for New York City parents and children who would have suffered the catastrophic consequences of this misguided lawsuit,” said Success Charter Network CEO Eva Moskowitz, whose schools exclusively operate in public school buildings.

Moskowitz said she hoped the lawsuit would be dismissed, but Feinman warned against such premature perceptions.

Feinman said in his closing statements that the denial “should not be misinterpreted” to mean he would ultimately side with the DOE. Feinman added that the DOE should not use the ruling for any site planning decisions it makes in the future.

Haimson said that Feinman’s specific caveat was a good sign that the lawsuit was being taken seriously.

“I thought that statement was very strong and I’m very hopeful,” Haimson said.