The state Appellate Division upheld a decision by the commissioner of education to renew a charter school’s application, and allow it to add additional grades, but did not permit the school to expand enrollment of its existing grades.

In the case of Highland Park Board of Education v. David C. Hespe, Commissioner of Education of the State of New Jersey, New Jersey State Board of Education and Hatikvah International Academy Charter School,  decided on Jan. 24, the appeals court upheld the commissioner’s final decision from March 2015. In that decision, the commissioner agreed to renew Hatikvah International Academy Charter School’s (“Hatikvah”) charter as well as its request to add additional grades — specifically sixth through eighth grades.

The Appellate Division also, however, affirmed the commissioner’s decision to not allow the school to increase student enrollment in its existing kindergarten-  through fifth-grade program.

Hatikvah, located in East Brunswick, was granted an initial four-year charter ending in June 2014. The school sought to serve kindergarten through fifth grades during its initial charter, and eventually expand to add grades six, seven and eight. In March 2015, Hatikvah submitted a five-year renewal application wherein the school sought to add student enrollment to its existing program, and gradually add the additional grades. The commissioner initially granted the renewal, but denied the request to add the additional enrollment and grades due to Hatikvah’s academic performance in 2012-2013. Hatikvah sought to amend its renewal application wherein the school provided detailed documentation of its improvements in student performance between 2013 and 2014.

Several surrounding school districts, including Highland Park, East Brunswick, Manalapan-Englishtown and South River, as well as three legislators, submitted statements opposing the application, alleging violations of its charter and jeopardy to existing public school programs. The Appellate Division dismissed, with little to no discussion, the majority of the districts’ opposition, but did rule on Highland Park’s challenge to its responsibility to pay the tuition for its students who attend Hatikvah.

Highland Park alleged, for the first time before the Appellate Division, that it was not responsible to pay the tuition to Hatikvah as it interpreted the “school district of residence” to mean the district where the charter school was located and not where the student was domiciled. The Appellate Division held clearly that “[w]e conclude that under N.J.S.A. 18A:36A-12 (b), the terms ‘school district of residence’ means the school district where the student resides, and each ‘school district of residence’ must pay the charter school for its students to attend the school, in the amount required by the Act and the regulations.” As such, the renewal of Hatikvah’s charter was approved until June of 2019, and the school was permitted to expand its program to grades six, seven and eight.