City breathes new life into a charter school it once tried to close

City lawyers are in negotiations to extend the life of a charter school that the education department tried last year to close, according to a lawyer representing the school’s parents.

Details aren’t final, but the terms are likely to include an agreement to grant the school, Peninsula Preparatory Academy Charter School, an extension beyond this school year, according to the lawyer, Arthur Schwartz. The city and school are still negotiating how the school would be evaluated in subsequent renewal decisions moving forward, he said.

Schwartz filed a second lawsuit on behalf of PPA’s parents in May, arguing that the city’s handling of the closure procedure violated their due process rights. A judge hasn’t yet ruled on that issue, but a restraining order meant the city had to abandon its closure plans for this year.

“We won, basically,” Schwartz said this week. “We won’t have a decision on what the law is, but who cares?”

A spokeswoman for the city confirmed that the two sides “are discussing a possible resolution” but declined to provide more details.

UPDATE: City law department officials said the court order does not necessarily mean the school is off the hook for the year. If the court were to rule in the department’s favor later, the department could take action to close the school mid-year.

An extension would be a significant about-face for the city. Citing insufficient test score gains, it announced in January that it would close Peninsula Prep when its charter expired in June. But the school’s board of trustees fought back in court as well, winning the restraining order, which allowed the school to admit and enroll new students until the judge made her decision.The ruling in effect extended PPA’s charter for one year. Another extension would suggest that the city determined parents’ claims that the school was improving had merit.

Last month, officials from the Department of Education’s newly restructured charter school office reached out to Schwartz and asked if PPA’s parents were interested in making a deal, Schwartz said.

PPA’s board and its principal initially resisted making any structural changes at the school. One idea would have been to hand the school over to a new operator, replacing the board and principal, but nothing was ever proposed and a parent leader said the plan was never taken seriously.

But that changed in recent months, Schwartz said, particularly after city officials reached out last month to see if the school and its parents would be interested in making a deal.

One of the changes includes a shake-up in leadership. On Wednesday, Principal Ericka Wala told parents that new administrators were being brought on at the school. Ruth Peets-Butcher, a former charter school principal on Long Island, was named associate principal.

This week, Wala said that she planned to stay on and help the school transition.

“I’m here to make sure things are moving as smoothly as possible,” said Wala. She said the decision to leave was her own and that she made the decision because an ill family member would require her to take more time off. Wala is also the lead applicant for Bright Futures Academy Charter School, a proposed charter school that was recently accepted by the state education department to submit its full application.

Wala said her decision to step down had nothing to do with her new charter school.

“I poured my heart and soul into this school so it’s important to me as well,” Wala added. “I want to make sure the school is situated well and will continue to move forward.”

PPA was one of two charter schools the city tried but failed to close this year. The city also tried to shutter Williamsburg Charter High School because of financial improprieties on the part of its founder. But parents at that school fought back in court, and a judge ruled this spring that the city’s process for closing the school was deeply flawed and lacked enough public notification. The school reopened this week.

Williamsburg Charter families also got help in court from Schwartz and his law firm, Advocates for Justice, which in the past has more often represented parents who oppose district school closures in large part because the schools often end up being replaced with charter schools. Last year,he represented parents who wanted to force charter schools to pay rent when they occupy public space.

The irony isn’t lost on Schwartz.

“It’s interesting: We’re two for two in charter school cases,” Schwartz said, adding that he’s never won a case that tried to reverse a district school closure.