Last week, we filed a complaint in Mercer County Superior Court that alleges that the Princeton Board of Education violated the Open Public Meetings Act during a June 12 vote to renew the sending-receiving agreement with Cranbury.
In response, Superintendent Steve Cochrane characterized the lawsuit as “… less about democracy and more about disruption….” and Board of Education President Patrick Sullivan called it a “frivolous lawsuit.”
We understand that no one likes to be called out for an alleged violation of the law. Nonetheless, we were surprised and disappointed by the reflexive statements made by Mr. Cochrane and Mr. Sullivan. If school district officials are confident in their assertion that the June 12 Board of Education vote was conducted in compliance with the Open Public Meetings Act, then our complaint is at worst a minor inconvenience. However, if the June 12 or other recent Board of Education votes violated the Open Public Meetings Act by failing to clearly and publicly identify how each member of the Board of Education 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 Open Public Meetings Act declares that “…the right of the public to be present at all meetings of public bodies, and to witness in full detail all phases of the deliberation, policy formulation, and decision making of public bodies, is vital to the enhancement of and proper functioning of the democratic process,” and that “…secrecy in public affairs undermines the faith of the public in government….” (emphasis added).
The June 12 Board of Education decision to renew for 10 years the agreement by which approximately 280 Cranbury students attend Princeton High School –– 17 percent of the total enrollment –– perpetuates the largest cause of overcrowding at Princeton High School, and hence is the primary reason for expanding the school facility. The proposed work at Princeton High School 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 sending and receiving agreement 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 sending and receiving agreement is a great deal for Princeton,’ and that the cost to educate Cranbury students is only 25 percent of the tuition paid by Cranbury, the Board of Education has consistently declined to provide written proof. Many of us would like to know how we too can participate in a business in which we can sell a product for $100 that costs only $25 to produce, and then keep $75 as a profit.
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 Open Public Meetings Act 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 Open Public Meetings Act 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 Board of Education, believing that the board of the Princeton Charter School had violated the Open Public Meetings Act at a Princeton Charter School 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 12th vote complied with the Open Public Meetings Act 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 and Joel Schwartz
Armour Road, Princeton