The New Jersey School Boards Association (NJSBA) has reported that in a Jan. 21 order, a state Superior Court judge ordered the New Jersey Department of Education and records clerk Jeannette Larkins to turn over records with redactions to six New Jersey school districts that are seeking to understand how the state’s school funding formula is calculated for New Jersey’s 600 school districts.
The school districts – Brick Township, Toms River, Jackson, Lacey, the Freehold Regional High School District and the Manalapan-Englishtown Regional School District – sued the state department and Larkins in Superior Court, alleging the department violated New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act (OPRA) and the common law right of access to public records by failing to hand over documents, according to the NJSBA.
Superior Court Judge Robert T. Lougy ruled the defendants failed to respond in a timely manner to an OPRA request filed by the plaintiffs and that the state had to turn over “all operative and responsive coding language” within 10 days of the order. Nonoperative language, such as language that may be advisory, consultative and deliberative, may be redacted.
“We are very pleased with the court’s decision and order,” said attorney Stephen J. Edelstein of the Weiner Law Group, Parsippany, which represented the plaintiffs. “Finally, we will be able to pull back the curtain and examine how the Department of Education is operationalizing the funding formula and whether districts are receiving the funding to which they are entitled. All school districts should have an interest in the funding formula being followed faithfully.”
According to the NJSBA, the judge denied without prejudice a request by the plaintiffs asking the state to prepare a Vaughn Index that lists all the responsive records that were withheld and the reasons why they were withheld. The judge ordered the state to pay the plaintiffs’ attorneys fees.
This is the second time the plaintiffs have compelled the state to turn over documents related to New Jersey’s school funding formula, according to the NJSBA.
The first case’s origins can be traced to Feb. 12, 2020, when the plaintiffs filed an OPRA request with the Department of Education containing 13 requests, including the algorithm used in connection with the calculation of funds allocated by the department to each school district.
After the state granted itself several extensions to responding to the OPRA request, the school districts filed a complaint and an order to show cause in Superior Court against the Department of Education and Larkins.
On Jan. 8, 2021, Judge Mary Jacobson directed the state to “provide the equalization aid school funding calculation algorithm code to plaintiffs no later than Jan. 11, 2021,” according to court filings.
The plaintiffs, however, filed a second complaint on July 21, 2021, in Superior Court of Mercer County after failing to secure additional records in a second OPRA request, which they filed after having an expert examine the algorithm. The plaintiffs’ expert determined certain additional records were needed to “operationalize and evaluate it,” according to the NJSBA.
Plaintiffs’ counsel wrote to the deputy attorney general who represented the Department of Education and Larkins in the first OPRA litigation in an effort to avoid having to file a second OPRA request, but the plaintiffs’ counsel was directed to proceed with filing a second request, which they did May 4, 2021.
According to their complaint, “Since plaintiffs filed the second OPRA request, the Department of Education and Larkins have granted themselves six extensions of time to respond with no basis given as to why additional time is needed, the most recent of which extended the time to respond until July 27, 2021 (more than two months after filing the request).”
In addition to OPRA, the plaintiffs also sought access to the records under the common law based on their interest in understanding the School Funding Reform Act of 2008, according to court filings. The plaintiffs wanted to determine if state aid is being appropriately computed and distributed to school districts, according to court filings.
The complaint states that “by stonewalling” the plaintiffs’ second request, the state was willfully violating OPRA.
In a brief in support of an order to show cause, the plaintiffs argue, “There should be nothing secretive about the funding formula that the Supreme Court held was meant to operate with ‘equity, transparency and predictability,’ ” according to the NJSBA.
The school districts that sued the New Jersey Department of Education – Brick Township, Toms River, Jackson, Lacey, the Freehold Regional High School District and the Manalapan-Englishtown Regional School District – are all losing state funding under a state law known as S-2 that was enacted several years ago and is reallocating state funding to New Jersey’s school districts through 2025.