Planet Princeton

Princeton couple challenges school board’s use of electronic voting, saying it violates the state’s Sunshine Law

Princeton residents Corrine O’Hara and Joel Schwartz have filed a lawsuit in Mercer County Superior Court challenging the school board’s use of an electronic voting system that they argue violates New Jersey’s Open Public Meetings Act, commonly known as the Sunshine Law.

The lawsuit calls on the court to: invalidate the June 12 vote on the new 10-year sending and receiving agreement with Cranbury, invalidate any previous votes by the board that use the electronic voting methodology, and prohibit the board’s use, in its current form, of the electronic voting system adopted by the board.

A hearing has been scheduled with Judge Mary Jacobson for Sept. 27.

The lawsuit argues that the computer voting system used by the school board does not allow the public to witness which school board members vote yes, which board members vote no, and which board members abstain. Since the new system was adopted in 2017, there is no verbal roll call vote at school board meetings.

Asked why she and her husband had taken this step, O’Hara said that if the June 12 vote is invalidated by the court, the board of education will have to vote again, in an appropriate manner, if it wants the sending and receiving agreement with Cranbury to send its students to Princeton High School to be renewed.

“Because this matter is of enormous importance to the Princeton community, any ‘do-over’ of this vote should give the community at least one month’s advance notice of when the vote will be held — with wide public dissemination of that notice. Any such ‘do-over’ should be confirmed by 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.

“We filed this complaint in court with great reluctance,” said O’Hara. “We did so because any and all decisions made by the board — the referendum, educational policy, equity issues, the sending and receiving agreement — should be made clearly, transparently and with full accountability.”

The Princeton Public Schools now uses a software system called BoardDocs to manage agendas, meetings, votes, and minutes through the New Jersey School Board Association. The software is used by some other districts. Critics of the system, say the way the Princeton school board uses the software, it is impossible to track changes to school board meeting agendas and it is often difficult to find information. At the school board meetings, board members vote electronically. The voting results are not read out loud at the Princeton School Board meetings. Votes are displayed on a screen at the front of the room, but people who are not sitting close enough can’t read the screen. Sometimes the vote only briefly flashes on the screen.

“No other public body in Princeton votes in this way — not the planning board, not the zoning board, not the town council,” Schwartz said. “All the other public bodies utilize a voting methodology which complies with the Open Public Meetings Act and by which anyone witnessing the vote is made readily aware, in the moment, who voted and in what manner.”

O’Hara, a registered nurse, worked for 29 years as a sexuality educator and counselor at HiTOPS and previously worked for Planned Parenthood. Schwartz is an architect, planner, developer and builder. In 2010, he was one of several Princeton residents who challenged the appropriateness of a proposal to rebuild the Community Park Pool complex. He and others called for more community input into the process, and the Community Park Pool proposal was redesigned.

The complaint states that “there is no posted tally by member as the vote is cast, and, at the end of the voting, the only announcement is that the resolution has passed or failed. No tally is given to the public.” The complaint requests “that the court permanently restrain the board’s use of electronic devices, in the current format, to cast secret ballots during public meetings, and to void such votes previously taken by the board.”

Superintendent Steve Cochrane said the Princeton Public Schools 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,” he said. “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.”

Cochrane said Schwartz has attended numerous board meetings and is aware of how individual votes are displayed.  “If he had a question or suggestion regarding the voting process he did not voice that publicaly or in the numerous private conversations he has had with me over the last several months.  I wish he had,” he said. “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.”

He claimed the lawsuit seems to be “less about democracy and more about disruption.”

“The lawsuit 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 materials purchased for our classrooms,” Cochrane said. “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.”

Schwartz, O’Hara and several other residents called on the board to delay the vote on the sending and receiving agreement with Cranbury at the June 12 meeting. Some residents said they were not aware the vote was taking place that evening. The agenda was posted to the school district’s website about 48 hours before the meeting and the agreement was listed in Section P as item 23 – “Sending /Receiving Relationship Agreement 2020-2030.”

“Although this complied with the minimal degree of required notice, this did not indicate that the board of education intended to vote on the matter, and this did not comport with the spirit of full transparency and community engagement in which the board claims to act,” Schwartz said. “Few members of the community were aware that the board intended to vote on the agreement at
the June 12 meeting, apart from those few who happened to still be in the community room
at the Princeton Public Library, following a June 9 forum on the agreement, at which time
someone casually mentioned, as an aside, that the sending and receiving agreement would be taken up at the June 12 meeting.”

O’Hara said what she witnessed at the June 12 meeting was troubling.

“The first two board members to speak said that the board had only just received the actual sending and receiving agreement document a day or two earlier and they had not yet had time to read it carefully, and they stated it would be wrong to vote on a 10-year agreement without first understanding the terms of the agreement,” she said. “The Cranbury representative on the board then replied that the board could vote on the matter now, and afterwards decide on the exact language in the agreement. When the vote was taken, neither I nor any of the 30 or more people in the room were provided with clear information as to who voted and how they voted.”

O’Hara says no official voting result was provided by the board until the meeting minutes were made public a month later.

“Today, when so many people feel the integrity of our voting process is being compromised,
the fact that a public body in Princeton would conduct its public votes on public matters in
this way has disturbing implications for this community,” Schwartz said. “It raises troubling questions about the integrity of the process with which the largest referendum in Princeton is being conducted. During the June 12 discussion of the sending and receiving agreement, several board members praised their colleagues on the board for the transparency with which they had addressed the matter. Moments later, however, the board voted in a manner contrary to the Open Public Meetings Act, which was enacted in 1975 to prevent ‘secrecy in public affairs’.”

A video of the June 12 school board meeting referenced in the lawsuit is available on YouTube here. The discussion about the sending and receiving agreement begins at about 2:37:00. The electronic vote occurs at about 3:25:00.

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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.

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