Mr. Cochrane and Mr. Sullivan:
Last week we filed a complaint in Mercer County Superior Court which alleges that the Princeton Board of Education (BOE) violated the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) during a June 12 vote to renew the sending-receiving agreement (SRA) with Cranbury. In response, Superintendent Steve Cochrane characterized the lawsuit as “… less about democracy and more about disruption ….” and BOE President Patrick Sullivan called it a “frivolous lawsuit.”
If district officials are confident in their assertion that the June 12 BOE vote was conducted in compliance with the OPMA, then our complaint is at worst a minor inconvenience. However, if the June 12 or other recent BOE votes violated the OPMA by failing to clearly and publicly identify how each member of the BOE voted, one would hope this lapse in good governance would be of greater concern to Mr. Cochrane and Mr. Sullivan. The first sentence of the OPMA declares that “… secrecy in public affairs undermines the faith of the public in government ….”
The BOE decision to renew for 10 years the agreement by which approximately 280 Cranbury students attend Princeton High School (PHS) — 17 percent of the total enrollment — perpetuates the largest cause of overcrowding at PHS and hence the primary reason for expanding the school facility. The proposed work at PHS would cost taxpayers approximately $60,000,000; this includes long-overdue remedial work, but the primary cost is to expand capacity.
Mr. Sullivan contends that the SRA issue “was already extensively discussed and voted on in public. The discussion on the matter of Cranbury is over, period.” Many residents, including us, have observed neither a “discussion” of this issue, nor a dialogue. Instead, there has been an ongoing, one-sided marketing and promotional effort. While continuing to assert that “the SRA is a great deal for Princeton,” and that the cost to educate the Cranbury students is only 25 percent of the tuition paid by Cranbury, the BOE has consistently declined to provide written proof.
We agree with Mr. Cochrane that “there is a place for lawsuits and there is … a place for conversation.” However, compliance by public bodies with the OPMA is not contingent on the willingness of any private citizen to monitor and privately convey violations of such a foundational law. The rule of law is not upheld through the mechanism of private conversations. Rather, the OPMA specifically empowers members of the public to have this conversation in Court, so that violations can be properly and transparently addressed. Last year, members of the BOE, believing that the Board of the Princeton Charter School (PCS) had violated the OPMA at a PCS Board meeting, followed the law in filing a complaint in Court. They did not engage in private conversation prior to their action, nor should they expect this of others.
Whether or not the June 12 vote complied with the OPMA is now a matter to be decided by the Court — as should be the case in upholding a statute so fundamental to the transparent and accountable exercise of democratic good governance.
Corrine O’Hara, Joel Schwartz