The ACLU-NJ on transparency in Newark Schools: your questions answered

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In Sept. 2010, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, NJ Governor Chris Christie, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Oprah Winfrey announced an exciting step for education reform in America: Mark Zuckerberg would be donating $100 million to improve Newark public schools, a potentially transformative opportunity. This week, nearly a year later, the ACLU-NJ filed a lawsuit on behalf of a local parents’ group to find out how that donation, and the plan for what to do with it to benefit their children, came about, since the City of Newark refused to share.

The city of Newark hasn’t responded with details, but the mayor of Twitter has: @CoryBooker: All grants of Zuckerberg $ have been made public. New grant announcements coming in Sept RT @bluejersey Update public on Zuckerberg’s gift

The next morning, he told the Newark Star-Ledger that he had disclosed everything, and that the records don’t exist. Wait, what? Below, you’ll find a detailed q+a to clear up as much as possible on our end.

You’re suing over the Facebook money. What does that mean?

The Secondary Parent Council, a 30-year-old group of parents and grandparents of Newark schoolchildren, requested records about Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s gift to the Newark Public Schools using New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act (that’s OPRA – not to be confused with Oprah, who hosted Mayor Booker, Zuckerberg and Governor Christie on her TV show to announce the gift Sept. 24, 2010).

The City of Newark told the group that it could not provide those records (citing reasons that contradict New Jersey law). We’re asking a judge to decide whether the rejection of the request for information violated the law. If so, then Newark will have to turn over those documents.

What information did the parents ask Newark for?

In a nutshell, letters, emails, memos and any other documentation between June 1, 2010 and April 15, 2011 (the date the request was filed) related to Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million gift supporting the Newark Public Schools.

Shouldn’t they just accept the money happily, no questions asked, since it’s a gift?

What Mark Zuckerberg has done for Newark is incredibly generous, and we don’t want to take away from the potentially staggering implications of this donation. But part of what made this gift so extraordinary was the promise from all involved – Zuckerberg, Booker and Christie – to be completely transparent with the public, and many parents and grandparents now feel sidelined and disappointed.

But at the same time, this is a gift to a public institution.

There’s more …

Although it has the ability to impact more people than a private entity could, public institutions come with a social contract. Because these schools are a part of the government, parents need to know that decisions are being made on their behalf on the people elected or appointed to represent their interests. No one should be able to buy the public’s share of public institutions with cash. Newarkers need to know details about the agreement for reassurance that Zuckerberg’s donation is not given in exchange for a blank check.

This is especially important now, since education reform is such a high priority, both in Newark and across the country. Too often, parents are criticized for not being involved and part of their children’s education. These parents and grandparents are simply trying to stay informed about important decisions affecting their children’s education.

How did Newark respond?

Newark responded on April 5, 2011 to ask for an extension until April 26, to allow for time to locate and compile responsive documents. The parents didn’t hear from Newark and called again June 1. The city said it still searching for records and asked for another extension, this time until June 15. After still not hearing from Newark, the parents wrote on June 30 requesting copies of documents the city had located, and again on July 12 after not hearing back.

On July 19, Newark gave its final answer: the request was denied. The city claimed:

• Relevant communications were not made in “the course of the Mayor’s official duties”

• Even if the mayor was acting in his official duties, OPRA gave him executive, official information, and deliberative privileges, compelling him to withhold the information.

• The request was “overbroad” and unspecific

Then, once the ACLU-NJ filed its lawsuit, on August 23, 2011, Newark claimed that no such records exist, which, if true, would mean that the city has not created a single document related to this donation.

Why aren’t the exemptions to OPRA relevant here?

• First, the idea that the handling of this money is not in the Mayor’s official capacity is preposterous

• Second, the Mayor doesn’t have executive privilege (only the Governor does).

• Third, the request asked for specific documents, and thus was not overbroad.

Isn’t the donation kosher?

We’re all for donations to our city, especially for education, and we’re thrilled for the opportunities ahead for Newark schoolchildren. We just want to make sure that in a gift to a public entity, the public gets all of the details it needs.

I read the article on nj.com and Mayor Booker’s tweets, and he said the city of Newark has released all of that information.

The fact is, it hasn’t.

All of the websites related to the gift – PENewark, the Newark Education and Youth Development Fund, the Foundation for Newark’s Future, Startup: Education – have little substantive information. Official websites – the City of Newark, Newark Public Schools and the state Department of Education – have little information pertaining to this gift specifically, as well, and have denied public records requests.

Some information is available or has been reported on by the media – the plan developed by Global Education Associates to consolidate schools, the 2009 Great Expectations plan created by former Superintendent Clifford Janey, and the NYU/Rutgers report on the results of efforts to survey the community (which includes commentary on the lack of transparency), a list of school openingsbut neither the state nor the city has provided satisfactory information about the details of the deal.

Anne Torres, a city spokeswoman, told the local news site Patch.com that the city has disclosed where the cash is going, primarily through local media outlets. And yet, while the press has been given access to more information than the general public, since the Sept. 24 announcement, the dominant complaint among journalists – not to mention community members, education professionals, religious leaders and legislators – has been the lack of transparency.

We don’t understand why Mayor Booker is reportedly so “angered” about an open records request and a subsequent lawsuit after the records were wrongfully denied. If it’s all been released and transparent the whole time, it shouldn’t be a problem.

So what happens if you win?

Newark would have to provide the public with its records relating to the Facebook gift. In addition to the information, the ACLU-NJ might receive a modest fee to cover the time our attorneys spent working on this case if it turns out Newark was in the wrong, and the public would have more information about how city leaders are making important decisions that affect the state’s largest school district.

How does asking Newark for paperwork fit in with your mission to defend the Constitution?

It’s very consistent with the ACLU’s mission to uphold the Constitution. So much so, that the ACLU-NJ has a special Open Governance Project with a dedicated attorney to help people who are improperly denied public records. Democracy depends on transparency; it helps engage and inform citizens, uncovers corruption and saves lives and taxpayer dollars. “Sunshine is the best disinfectant,” said U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis.

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