In a March 24 decision, a Superior Court judge in Middlesex County invalidated a school board’s decision to move its election from November back to April because of violations of the Open Public Meetings Act and school election law.
In Perth Amboy Board of Education v. City of Perth Amboy, the court determined that the school board violated the Open Public Meetings Act and school election laws when it decided to move the school election from November back to April.
Under the Open Public Meetings Act, public bodies are required to provide adequate notice of their meetings. Adequate notice is defined as written advance notice of at least 48 hours, giving the time, date, location, and as complete an agenda as known at the time of the notice. The notice must be prominently posted in a public place, usually a municipal building, and delivered to at least two previously designated newspapers.
Previous court cases have imposed the additional requirement on boards of education that the notice sent to the newspapers must also be capable of being published 48 hours prior to the meeting to meet the adequate notice requirements of the OPMA.
In this case, the court determined that the board had not provided adequate notice. The court found that the board failed to provide adequate proof that it transmitted the notice to the required newspapers as required by OPMA. Even if the board transmitted the notice in the requisite amount of time, the court said that “it was patently obvious that the Board knew it could not have published the notice in a timely fashion for the scheduled meeting.” Because of the lack of adequate notice required by the OPMA, the court invalidated the meeting and the decision made at that meeting to move the election from November back to April.
Board Members’ Length of Term The court also determined that, even if the board had met the requirements for adequate notice required by the OPMA, the decision to hold an April 2016 school election after the conclusion of the November 2015 school election would still be invalid because doing so would shorten the terms of those members of the board whose terms would have otherwise expired at the end of December 2016, following a November 2016 school election.
The court observed that N.J.S.A. 18A:12-11 requires that board member terms be for three years in duration. By holding an April 2016 school election, the board would be shortening the terms of those members whose terms would have ordinarily ended at the end of December 2016.
The court noted that while there was a statute, N.J.S.A. 18A:12-15.1, specifically authorizing the extension of a board member’s term when a board chooses to move an April school election to November, there was not a similar provision expressly authorizing the shortening of a board member’s term when moving the school election from November back to April. Without specific authorization in statute, the court could not permit the board to move the election from November back to April without specific statutory language authorizing the shortening of a board member’s term. Instead, the court held the board could only extend current board members’ terms by moving the November 2016 election to April 2017. The court suggested that the state legislature may want to take up legislation to clarify its intentions concerning the shortening of a board member’s term.
Finally, the court raised two additional questions for the state Legislature to consider. The first concerns the current statute that requires that a school board election that is moved to November remain there for at least four years. But if the election is moved back to April and then to November again, must it remain there for a second four-year period?
The court also questioned whether the ability of one of the parties–the school board or the municipal governing body–to move an election to another date is subordinate to the other’s authority, or “whether it is essentially a race to the first valid resolution, or whether it ultimately would reflect a legislative Ping-Pong® match between the parties?”
The court specifically called on the state Legislature to resolve these issues.
While this trial court decision applies only to the parties involved in this case and is binding only in Middlesex County, all school boards are urged to review their Open Public Meetings Act and election procedures to be sure they are compliant with the law’s requirements.