The city’s school board voted in executive session last Monday to certify tenure charges against the head of the teachers’ union. Hundreds of teachers protested the board’s move to take action on the matter behind closed doors.
Though unusual, the board did not violate the Open Public Meetings Act, a law that guarantees the public the right to attend meetings of public bodies.
Voting in closed-door or executive session is so unusual it confused lawyers.
Walter Luers, the attorney for the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government, said the school board allegedly committed a “technical violation” of the law which guarantees the public the right to attend meetings of public bodies like school board, city council, and various independent authorities.
“In my opinion, it’s okay to hold the deliberations in executive session, but vote should be held in open session. It’s a technical violation of the meetings act,” said Luers when told of the board’s meeting which occurred on Monday, March 27th, 2017.
The school board went into executive session to discuss tenure charges against John McEntee, president of the Paterson Education Association. The board discussed the matter and took a vote in closed session.
Hundreds of teachers attended the board meeting in hopes of observing the board’s action. School board president Christopher Irving said the board abided by the advice of its outside counsel.
Mark Blunda of Somerset County-based Apruzzese, McDermott, Mastro & Murphy law firm who advised the board said the district followed a state statute and relied on a court decision (Cirangle v. Maywood Board of Education) to take action while in executive session.
Blunda cited the state law to hundreds of teachers that gathered inside the Paterson Board of Education headquarters on that Monday. Since that meeting questions have been raised whether the school board’s action violated the open meetings law.
On Thursday afternoon, Blunda provided a copy of the state statue he relied on to advise the board and cited a court decision. He said he relied on N.J.S.A. 18A-6-11 to advise the board to take action to certify the tenure charges in a closed-door meeting.
“The consideration and actions of the board as to any charges shall not take place at a public meeting,” reads the statute he cited.
When told of Blunda’s cited decision and the statute, Luers responded, “He’s correct. I wasn’t aware of the tenure law. The Board acted properly.”
“The problem in this case arises out of legislative enactment of two flatly contradictory statutory provisions,” ruled the New Jersey Superior Court in the Cirangle v. Maywood Board of Education case.
Louis Cirangle, a tenured superintendent at the Maywood Board of Education, sued his school district. He sued because the district forwarded tenure charges – reviewed and approved in an executive session — against him for some alleged irregularities in disbursement of public funds to the state commissioner of education.
Cirangle wanted the board’s finding against him to be aired in public.
“On the one hand, the Open Public Meetings Act requires that consideration of the charges against Cirangle be conducted at an open public meeting. On the other hand, the Tenure Employees Hearing Law prohibits consideration and action by the board in public,” reads the court decision.
The judge in the case upheld the tenure law over the open meetings act. “The Legislature has manifested its intention to exclude the public even in the face of a demand for an open meeting by the affected tenured employee,” read the decision.