Charter School in mobbed-up New Jersey refuses to comply with open record laws: John Paff, Libertarian Party’s Open Government Advocacy Project Sues for records
In Atlantic City New Jersey, on Friday, April 9, 2010, at 1:30 p.m., Judge William Nugent conducted an Order to Show Cause in the hearing in Paff v. Oceanside Charter School, Docket No. ATL-L-854-10. The hearing was open to the public and held at the Atlantic County Civil Courthouse, 1201 Bacharach Blvd, Atlantic City. John Paff was the plaintiff in the matter and is being represented by Richard M. Gutman, Esq. of Montclair, New Jersey.
At issue is whether a public school’s denial, in this case a publicly funded charter school, can deny access to executive (closed-door) meeting minutes describing the deliberations and reasons that a corrupt school official at Oceanside Charter School was fired. Paff claims the school’s refusal to provide him full disclosure of the of meeting minutes of a public entity violates the Open Public Meetings Act, (OPMA), the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) and/or the common law right of access to public records of New Jersey.
The legal issues
John Paff , Chairman of the New Jersey Libertarian Party’s Open Government Advocacy Project brought the suit in the Superior Court of New Jersey against the Oceanside Charter School on March 5, 2010 (ibid). The allegation stems from the charter schools failure to provide Paff with documents indicating why RaShun Stewart, a former employee of the Oceanside Charter School was terminated at an executive charter school meeting held on February 19th, 2009.
RaShun Stewart was a publicly paid, salaried administrator for the charter school. Stewart, in his capacity as a public servant, purchased services for the school, at taxpayer expense of course, and he did so from an outfit called Inner City Issues, Inc. However, what Stewart failed to disclose in his financial documents, an ethical failure of law, is that he owned Inner City Issues, Inc. and thus would directly profit off the neo-liberal scam to transfer funds from public coffers into his own proprietary wallet.
The school board, without adopting any legal resolutions required by law, went into Executive Session on February 19, 2009 to deliberate and discuss the termination of Stewart once they became aware of the corruption, or at least given lip service to it. Not only did the school board terminate Stewart during the executive board session, but Stewart was also later cited by on October 27, 2009 by the New Jersey Schools Ethics Commission for violating N.J.S.A. 18A: 12-25, a New Jersey Ethics rule.
On November 29, 2009, John Paff, in good legal standing asked the charter school for a copy of the board meetings of the February 19th termination date and/or any resolutions passed by the board to terminate RaShun Stewart. The request was made in an effort to provide public transparency and disclosure for citizens of New Jersey as to the board’s decision to review Stewart’s employment, the process the board used, the issues debated at the meeting, and the conclusions arrived at by the board to eventually issue a termination notice to Stewart and the controversy swirling around RaSun Stewart.
It was not to be, for on December 8, 2009 Paff heard back from the charter school. The charter school flat-out denied the request from John Paff. They said that they did not have to comply with any citizen request as to their deliberations or conclusions in the matter, even if they were publicly chartered, funded and attended. Paff, in an effort to exhaust all administrative remedies required by law before having to eventually go to Superior Court, wrote the school on December 31st to challenge the position of the charter school in refusing to release public records and to ask them again to release the records.
On January 11th, the charter school grandstanded with a weak and insincere capitulation and granted John Paff ‘portions’ of the minutes of the executive meetings, one held on February 19th the other on April 23rd of 2009, but they patently refused to release all of the information Paff had requested and thus redacted documents. The school’s legal counsel wrote, in a legal letter dated January 15, 2010, that the board had made no resolution and the school would continue to refuse to release any of the redacted material. This then prompted John Paff, on January 28th, 2010 to legally notify the school that he would be bringing a lawsuit under the New Jersey Public Records Act if the material was not released.
John Paff then retained legal counsel, who argued that the school redacted the most important part of the meeting, which was the deliberatory process over the actions and termination of Stewart and that this was a violation of the open records laws in the State of New Jersey. He also alleged that the need for records regarding public corruption were greater than the need for the school’s apparent desire for secrecy and non-disclosure.
Why the secrecy and aren’t these charter school creatures public and thus subject to public scrutiny??
The Oceanside Charter School rests its argument for refusing to release public documents on the fact that one, Paff has no rights to the records and two, that they cannot release them for they fear reprisal in the form of a lawsuit from RaShun Stewart for the termination. In other words, they say that they must keep the documents and meeting minutes close to the vest for their termination of an ethical ‘perp’, in this case RaShun Stewart, might put them in a position of being sued by, yes, RaShun Stewart.
The board also goes on to argue that the open record acts shield them from having to release executive board meeting minutes because they must protect the ‘process’ that goes on in these meetings.
The arguments are fallacious and the Superior Court, it can be hoped, will see behind the shadows on the cave wall that are being projected by the school. To begin with, if Stewart was terminated with cause, then why would the charter school fear retaliation from Mr. Stewart in a law suit over his termination? I mean if the New Jersey Ethics Board and the charter school are right, and RaShun Stewart did indeed profit off public funds by earmarking them to a private corporation he owned, where is the wrongful termination? What does the board have to fear? Secondly, if the public is not privy to the process of deliberations and conclusion generation by the public school board officials they elect, then how do they know they are operating in the best interest of the public, in this case Oceanside Charter School? They don’t, and that is the problem.
Secrecy, failure to disclose public records, deception and non-transparency are the norm, not the aberration when it comes to charter schools
When it comes to charter schools, as I have noted elsewhere in www.dailycensored in my article, ‘The Thickening Sickening”
“Unfortunately transparency and full disclosure eludes many charter schools and their operators. When the New York Times reported in 2002 that according to the Center for Education Reform, 4.5 percent of charter schools nationwide had folded or had their charters revoked and that in Arizona, which had 422 charters at the time — more than any other state — nearly 10 percent of the charter schools had failed, no one expected that these failures would compound and skyrocket throughout the 40 states that now have charter school legislation” (http://dailycensored.com/2009/11/27/10582/).
I also go deeply into this failure to disclose in my new book on charter schools and thus the move comes as no surprise ((Charter School Movement: History, Politics, Policies, Economics & Effectiveness
Second Edition, Grey House Publishing Company). Take this example and tell me it doesn’t have the scent of Oceanside all over it:
“On April 29th, 2009 the Pennsylvania Department of Education filed suit against Agora Cyber Charter School (a virtual charter school) in Devon, alleging fraud and breach of fiduciary responsibility by its board of trustees. By state law, the education department has oversight responsibility for the 11 cyber charter schools that provide online instruction to students in their homes. The civil complaint maintained that the cyber charter’s board entered into improper contracts with the Cynwyd Group LLC., a management company that was co-created by Agora’s founder Dorothy June Brown, “for the purpose of making money from managing and operating the school.” Brown’s Cynwyd Group not only has a management contract with Agora but owns the school’s administrative offices on Chestnut Street in Devon. The school pays $25,000 per month in rent to Brown and Brown, who initially was Agora’s chief executive officer, is Cynwyd Group’s senior consultant to the cyber charter school and an ex-officio member of the charter board. Brown founded three traditional charter schools in Philadelphia and was the CEO of two of them until summer of 2008” (http://dailycensored.com/2009/11/27/10582/).
According to documents filed in Commonwealth Court, the state Department of Education has concluded that Agora “is operating in such a grossly unlawful and improper manner” that if the department continued making payments of taxpayer funds, it “would be “facilitating and enabling Agora in the perpetration of ongoing and pervasive unlawful and improper conduct.” (Ibid)
The suit goes on to contend that Agora’s board of trustees “participated in a scheme to defraud” the department and had “defrauded Agora students by entering into a lease that was far above fair market value” and paying Cynwyd Group a management fee when “little was done by Cynwyd. . .” (Ibid).
The Agora board, much like the Oceanside Charter School Board circles the wagons around its affairs so that it can operate without the messy and feckless democratic process. It’s easier that way, don’t you think?
Getting the unaccountable autocrats to ‘talk’, forcing them to reveal, not conceal and the public’s right to know
Believing themselves exempt from any regulation and any public oversight these schools either make public disclosure a burden on those who request documents by forcing them to pay exorbitant fees for copies, dragging their heels in supplying requests, or in this case simply saying they will not or refuse to release public documents, knowing that most people have no access to adequate legal counsel in such a matter.
As a public interest lawyer I too have been through the madness of public institutions and governments refusing to release publicly owned documents. I coincidently have sued under the California Public Records Act for a Writ of Mandamus forcing a small city in California to release the cell phone records from a corrupt mayor. Therefore, I am aware of the struggle John Paff is going through, the administrative hurdles, the foot dragging, the costs incurred, the refusal to comply on behalf of the governmental agency and his absolutely correct contention that public records are public information and that the public’s right to know outweighs a government, or in this case a charter school’s, right to secrecy.
But what is it that the school board of Oceanside Charter School is trying to hide? Could it be that documents or meeting minutes might show further corruption or indicate collaboration or put the light on some conspiracy hatched with public monies by charter administrators, the board or employees? One would think that if there was no taint on the inner workings of the Oceanside Charter School and that if Mr. Stewart was indeed violating ethics, which obviously the New Jersey State Ethics Board thinks he did, for they would not have filed complaints against him and alleged so, the school would gladly give out any and all information. After all, they would argue they operated in the public’s interest, right?
But this is not how it works when you have autocrats and demagogues running public institutions. They hide behind secrecy, non-transparency and refusal to disclose using public paid for lawyers and staff time to deny the public’s right to know. And it is New Jersey state and federal taxes that subsidize both Stewart’s ‘insider trading’, the legal battle waged by the school as well as the apparent cover-up by the school board. Something stinks. Someone needs to open a window and Paff is attempting to do just that.
The order to show cause filed by Paff and his legal counsel can be found here. The fight against charter schools and their inescapable pursuit of autocratic decision making and refusal to comply with good faith citizen request for public records can be found in every community in the US. For when a charter school breaks ground, it breaks public confidence and trust and is managed and run like a corporation with little or no accountability to the people it purports to serve, other than those it does serve – the board, the administrators, the vendors to they contract with and the privatizers who fund them. Freedom from regulation and oversight for a charter school means little more than oppression, exploitation and possible robbery or malfeasance aimed at the public commons. The hubris is like manure on a sweltering hot day.
John Paff, go get ‘em! Readers, stay tuned!