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Princeton Public Schools Board holds special closed session

The school board for the Princeton Public Schools held a special closed session last week, but it is unclear what the session was about.

Residents interested in issues discussed by the board behind closed doors would have, for the most part, no idea what the board was discussing based on the posted agenda.

The agenda listed only the general topic for the meeting “pending litigation.” It is unclear from the notice whether the board was discussing the lawsuit against the Princeton Charter School. The Princeton Public Schools board and the Princeton Charter School board are suing each other over Sunshine Law notice violations that each board has committed.

Under New Jersey’s Open Public Meetings Act, commonly known as the Sunshine Law, public bodies must list what they will discuss in closed session to the extent known, and the agenda must be specific. It is not enough to list litigation or personnel as general subjects.

Walter Luers, the top lawyer in the state for Open Government issues and a member of the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government, said the school board’ resolution falls short.

“The Open Public Meetings Act or ‘Sunshine Law’ permits public bodies to exclude the public and enter closed session meetings, but only after they have passed a resolution or motion that specifically identifies the ‘general nature of the subject to be discussed’ and the time and circumstances when the discussion in closed session can be disclosed to the public,” Luers said.

“Here, the Board’s February 21, 2017 notice does neither. While public bodies need only describe the ‘general nature’ of the discussion, ‘pending litigation’ can mean almost anything,” Luers said. “The Open Public Meetings Act must be construed in favor of the public’s right to know, and here the public is not receiving enough information to be able to evaluate the public body’s need for a closed-session meeting. While it is within the limits of the law to discuss pending litigation in closed session, the board should identify the specific case being discussed by name so that the public can learn more about the case using other means.”

Planet Princeton reached out to the superintendent of schools and the board president on the notice issue on Feb. 22 and still has not received a response.

In 2012, the New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed that it is the duty of public bodies to list specific closed session agenda items.

The court ruled that the Rutgers University Board of Governors violated the state’s Open Public Meetings Act by failing to inform the public of issues it planned to discuss in a closed session at a meeting, and said the board also violated the act by improperly discussing public matters about the athletics program in closed session. The court’s decision made it clear that government bodies must provide the public with an agenda that describes issues to be discussed to the extent known, rather than merely making generic references about what might be discussed.

At issue was a September 2008 meeting of the Rutgers Board of Governors. As required by law, the board placed advance notice of the Sept. 10, 2008 meeting in newspapers. The notice stated the board would convene immediately in executive session to discuss contract negotiations and attorney-client matters, but the notice did not offer any other details. There was no mention of the Rutgers athletic department, a controversial stadium project, or naming rights for the stadium, even though the board knew these items would come up for discussion.

The court took issue with Rutgers’ actions, noting, “clearly that by the time this notice was prepared and published, more was known about the extent of the proposed agenda than what was conveyed by the generic references to ‘contract negotiation and attorney-client privilege’…The Board had an obligation to include as part of the notice of the meeting of September 10 the agenda of that meeting to the extent it was known.” The court also rejected the board’s contention that its discussion of policies and guidelines could be done behind closed doors because it “indirectly relates” to subjects that could properly be the subject of a closed meeting. The court said such an ability would“eviscerate the (Sunshine Law) and runs counter to our mandate to construe the statue in such a manner as to maximize public participation.”

Krystal Knapp

Krystal Knapp is the founding editor of Planet Princeton. She can be reached via email at editor AT planetprinceton.com. Send all letters to the editor and press releases to that email address.

  • Robert Dana

    I understand the calls for greater specificity. However, I wonder whether the attorneys representing the BOE will be (were) present during the closed meeting. A fulsome disclosure of the agenda or an open meeting could risk a waiver of the attorney client privilege between – a vital and necessary aspect of our adversarial system.

  • Julie R

    Is Planet Princeton also monitoring compliance with OPRA requests?

  • Liz Winslow

    I asked about the nature of the litigation at the BoE meeting last night. Superintendent Cochrane stated that PPS’s lawyers had advised that “litigation” was indeed sufficient to meet OPMA standards, but did go on to clarify that the substance of the litigation was regarding the charter school.

  • Liz Winslow

    Hi there – my understanding is that PCS denied the allegations – but – and this is in accordance with OPMA – said that even if there were a deficiency, it was cured by a subsequent public meeting on the same topic. I am not a lawyer, but my understanding is that curing the deficiency in this manner is a sufficient remedy under OPMA.

  • FreshAir

    Thank you, Krystal, for your consistently excellent work in monitoring & sharing news about non-compliance to the Sunshine law in our town.

  • krystalknapp

    Will find the story in archive in daytime and post link. Also working on posting links to all the source documents related to the charter school expansion. We have written about the closed session issue in the past related to the Princeton Council, which now correctly notices closed sessions. We were not in attendance at board meetings of the charter school back then, but are certainly monitoring things now. We did show Mr. Luers the lawsuit regarding the charter school’s violations and the countersuit. He told us the remedy for OPMA violations is to redo the closed session. Thanks again for your comments and links.

  • A Ristic

    Ok. Thanks for clarifying, Krystal. Did not realize that PCS acknowledged its Sunshine Law violations in its response/ countersuit.

  • krystalknapp

    Sorry we are just now approving your comment. All comments with links must be approved manually to avoid spam. Thank you for posting. Both the charter school and the Princeton Public Schools Board of Education violated the Open Public Meetings Act. Given the recent lawsuit and counter lawsuit, both should be aware of the law now and both should be following it. If either board violates the Sunshine Law, we will write about it. We wrote about the district’s suit and the counter suit. A previous article about the counter suit notes that the charter school acknowledged violations in its response to the lawsuit.

  • A Ristic

    The link to the announcement for PCS 11/28 mtg is not going to intended page. It reads: Notice Publish Date:
    Saturday, November 26, 2016
    Notice Content
    In accordance with the Open Public Meetings Act, P.L. 1975 c. 231, notice is hereby given that Princeton Charter School Board of Trustees will hold a special meeting on Monday, November 28, 2016 at 7:00pm. The meeting will be held at 100 Bunn Drive in Princeton, NJ for the purpose of approving engagement contracts. 11/30/2016 THE TIMES $5.22

  • A Ristic

    Sorry, hit post before finishing. I don’t want to tee this up as another endless, unproductive, and antagonistic comments debate about the expansion application. However, I continue to be dismayed about how one-sided the stories published by PP are with regard to our public education situation at this time. If, based on the subject matter expert’s (Mr. Luer’s) assessment of the posting of last week’s PPS closed meeting, the PCS announcement I linked in previous comment passes muster, great. If it’s a quantitative assessment of detail vs a qualitative assessment of whether the detail conveys the real essence of the upcoming meeting, okay, I get it. As long as enough detail is posted, it doesn’t matter if the meeting is conveyed to be something that it’s not in the end (not to mention meeting timing, and announcement two days before the meeting, on a Saturday of the Thanksgiving holiday weekend). Fine. I just want to present some comparisons of “transparency” to the public to indicate that there is more than one way to assess it. We have to draw our own conclusions regarding whether either announcement was calculated or not. Why should we have to do that is another matter entirely. In the end, I feel like the announcement PP made the effort to analyze was more transparent than the other. Thanks.

  • Joe

    Does Walter have any criticisms of PCS’s lack of transparency or violations of OPMA, the Sunshine law?

  • Joe

    Walter is a self confessed libertarian. Libertarianism is an anti-government cult.

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