August 1, 2018

BOE Sued Over Alleged Violation Of Sunshine Law

By Donald Gilpin

Two Princeton residents have initiated a lawsuit against the Princeton Board of Education (BOE), charging a violation of the New Jersey Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA), known as the “Sunshine Law.”

Filed by Corrine O’Hara and Joel Schwartz in Mercer County Superior Court on July 27, the complaint concerns the manner in which the BOE voted to renew a sending-receiving agreement (SRA) with the Cranbury Board of Education by which Cranbury students attend Princeton High School. As a result of the computer voting method used by the BOE, the public cannot witness who votes yes, who votes no, and who abstains, according to the complaint.

Princeton Public Schools Superintendent Steve Cochrane defended the Board’s use of electronic voting procedures and questioned the basis of the lawsuit, which he characterized as “less about democracy and more about disruption.” He stated that a conversation would have been more appropriate than a lawsuit for resolving any concerns that the complainants may have had.

Cochrane noted that PPS “is one of many districts throughout the country utilizing BoardDocs for the electronic management of its meetings. The electronic
voting procedure associated with BoardDocs is one the district has been using appropriately and transparently. All votes are made in public and recorded in real time. The votes of individual Board members are displayed on the large screen at the front of the Board meeting room. In addition, any member of the public can go to the BoardDocs website and see how each Board member voted as soon as the vote is complete.”

The Board adopted a system of electronic voting last year, with no verbal roll call vote. Critics of the electronic system have complained that the results posted on the screen are not easily visible, especially from the back of the room.

The complaint, charging “secrecy and lack of transparency in voting,” calls for a “do-over” of the SRA vote, with at least one month’s advance notice, and a “voice vote in which it is clear to anyone present, or watching remotely, exactly how each Board member voted, and with an exact tally provided immediately,” O’Hara said.

The complaint states that “as a result of the Board’s use of devices or laptops, its members are permitted to cast secret ballots,” in violation of the OPMA.

“All decisions made by the Board — the referendum, educational policy, equity issues, the SRA — should be made clearly, transparently, and with full accountability,” O’Hara added.

“No other public body in Princeton votes in this way,” Schwartz said. “All the other public bodies utilize a voting methodology which complies with the OPMA and by which anyone witnessing the vote is made readily aware, in the moment, who voted and in what manner.”

The complaint further calls on the Court to permanently restrict the Board from use of electronic devices “to cast secret ballots during public meetings, and to void such votes previously taken by the Board.”

A hearing has been scheduled by Judge Mary Jacobson for September 27.

Cochrane raised doubts about the need for court intervention to address O’Hara and Schwartz’s concerns. “Mr. Schwartz has attended numerous Board meetings and is aware of how individual votes are displayed,” Cochrane said. “If he had a question or suggestion regarding the voting process, he did not voice that publicly or in the numerous private conversations he has had with me over the last several months. I wish he had.

“There is a place for lawsuits and there is also a place for common sense and conversation. If Mr. Schwartz had a concern about transparency, or wanted the results of a particular vote to be read aloud by the board secretary, he could simply have asked.”

Cochrane went on to discuss his chagrin at the ramifications of the lawsuit which “not only calls into question the vote on the extensively discussed partnership with Cranbury, but it also attempts to call into question every vote taken by the Board in the last year, including personnel decisions, special education placements, policy revisions, and resources and materials purchased for our classrooms. There is exciting and important work ahead of us in the Princeton Public Schools. I would like nothing more than to focus our time and resources on those efforts.”