Lawsuit against the N.J Department of Education for withholding information

N.J. BEING SUED OVER CHARTER SCHOOL SECRECY; March 6, 2011: New Jersey Newsroom
Seeking a glimpse into the increasingly secretive world of New Jersey education, the American Civil Liberties Union has sued the state Department of Education seeking the names of "volunteers" who reviewed 50 applications for new charter schools.

The ACLU filed suit on behalf of the Newark-based Education Law Center, a frequent legal opponent of the department. The dispute not only raises issues about public access to government records, but the department's unusual move of adding unidentified third parties to its regulatory process.

The suit and supporting documents are posted on-line here:

In response to an Open Public Records Act request from David Sciarra, the center's executive director, the department in December released the names of its own employees involved in the Christie Administration's push to open more charter schools.

But the department refused to release the names of volunteers and its correspondence with them, materials used in their training or a list of proposed charter schools whose applications were "prioritized for immediate review," according to the suit filed in Superior Court in Mercer County.

The department cited an OPRA exemption for advisory, consultative or deliberative material, according to the suit. Sciarra then asked for the materials under the common law right of access. The department released the list of schools, as well as heavily edited versions of the e-mails, but not the other material.

By not paying the unidentified "volunteers," the department has a potential defense that they are not "employees" under OPRA. But the ACLU suit said the department assigned them "substantive work performed on behalf of the State of New Jersey."…

The fight over the charter approval process follows the revelation that a company founded in May by Christopher Cerf, now the acting state education commissioner, received $500,000 for a report proposing massive changes in Newark schools.

The company, Global Education Advisors, received the money from private donations raised by Newark Mayor Cory Booker, whose prize so far has been $100 million for city schools from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

The company's sweeping plan to close some district schools and consolidate others with charter schools followed a Zuckerberg-financed $1 million public outreach campaign, where it was not mentioned…

Meanwhile, tax documents filed by the Newark Charter School Fund showed that it spent more on consultants and internal compensation in 2008-9 than it gave out in direct grants to schools…
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TRENTON — The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey filed a lawsuit against the state Department of Education today seeking the names of volunteers who reviewed 50 charter school applications and information about the training they received.

The ACLU is acting on behalf of the Education Law Center, a organization based in Newark that advocates for equal and adequate public education. The lawsuit was filed in Superior Court in Mercer County.

The lawsuit claims the department violated the Open Public Records Act by illegally withholding the identities of the unpaid volunteers, who help to determine which schools receive a charter and public funding.

Volunteers evaluate and score the applications, which outline plans for operating a semi-autonomous public school, according to the complaint.

In November, the law center filed a request for public information with the Department of Education seeking the names of those who reviewed the applications for charter schools hoping to open in September 2012.

The department provided the names of employees but redacted the names of volunteers and denied access to its training materials.

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