NJ State Board of Education Rules Benchmark Academy Charter School May Open — Board Unanimously Overturns Decision by NJ Commissioner of Education

The New Jersey State Board of Education on September 20, 2006 voted unanimously to allow the Benchmark Academy Charter High School to open. This vote overturns a decision by the state’s Acting Commissioner of Education Lucille Davy on August 31, 2006 to deny final charter approval to Benchmark, an innovative charter high school located in rural Southern New Jersey.

Benchmark was represented by Martin S. Kaufman, General Counsel of the Foundation and David C. Apy a partner in McCarter & English, LLP, a prominent New Jersey law firm and a member of the Foundation’s Advisory Council.

The school’s founder, Kathryn Schoonfield, expressed her gratitude to Atlantic Legal Foundation and McCarter & English: "Heartfelt thanks….What a victory to overturn the Commissioner’s decision and get our charter The students, parents and staff of Benchmark thank you for your hours, hard work and dedication."

Mrs. Schoonfield also said: "We have an amazing community of parents, students, teachers, administrators and supporters behind us. They believed we would be vindicated, and we were. I am relieved and very pleased. Benchmark will open its doors this week."

The decision to deny the charter by the Commissioner was made on August 31, 2006, jprevented Benchmark from opening as planned for the first day of school on September 5. That decision, coming a mere two business days before school was set to open, led to difficulties for students, parents, teachers and administrators of the school. Parents had purchased uniforms and required supplies and they had transferred their children from their former neighborhood public schools. Teachers and administrators had left jobs or passed up job opportunities for the school year to work at Benchmark.

Mr. Kaufman said that "It is gratifying when government works and gets the right result. The Board’s decision will benefit the children, the parents and the
communities served by Benchmark. It was a great pleasure working with the staff and Board of Trustees of Benchmark. "

When the Benchmark charter school learned of the Commissioner’s denial of its charter, its attorneys sought an immediate stay of her decision in an emergent appeal to the Appellate Division of Superior Court. Benchmark claimed that the Commissioner had out-of-date information which led her to incorrect financial assumptions about the school, and Benchmark’s efforts to correct this information with the Department were simply ignored. The judge reviewed the case and
ordered that the State Board make an emergency decision by September 13. The State Board then held a special teleconference meeting on September 13, and gave the Commissioner more time to give the Board detailed information to support her decision. A number of members of the Board said the Commissioner had not provided sufficient information to the Board. They postponed a final decision to September 20.

In its decision the Board stated:

"After a thorough review of the record and the papers filed on appeal including the additional information provided by the Acting Commissioner and Benchmark, we reverse the August 31, 2006 determination of the Acting Commissioner."

The Board went on to say:

"Based upon our review of the materials submitted by the parties, we are satisfied that Benchmark has met the contingencies established in the Acting Commissioner’s letter of January 13, 2006 granting it contingent approval to operate a charter school and has demonstrated its capability to operate a charter school in the 2006-07 school year."

Representation of Benchmark is a part of Atlantic Legal’s Charter School Advocacy Program, through which the Foundations assists charter schools nationwide by providing legal counseling and legal representation, often with the generous assistance of law firms like McCarter & English, which also donate their services free of charge.

Unhappily for the Benchmark students, parents, teachers and staff, the uncertainties surrounding the opening decimated the enrollment and certain start-up operations leading the Commissioner to summarily close the school following the Board’s favorable rulling.