In a Jan. 21 order, a New Jersey 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 seeking to understand how the state’s school funding formula is calculated for the state’s roughly 600 districts, according to court documents.
The districts – Brick, Toms River, Jackson, Lacey, Freehold Regional and Manalapan-Englishtown Regional – sued the state department and records clerk Jeannette Larkins in state Superior Court, alleging that the department violated New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act and the common law right of access to public records by failing to hand over documents.
Superior Court Judge Robert T. Lougy ruled the defendants failed to respond in a timely manner to an Open Public Records Act request filed by the plaintiffs and that the state must 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’re very pleased with the court’s decision and order,” said Stephen J. Edelstein of the Weiner Law Group in 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.” He added, “All school districts should have an interest in the funding formula being followed faithfully.”
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. He 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 the state’s school funding formula.
The first case’s origins can be traced to Feb. 12, 2020, when the plaintiffs filed an Open Public Records Act request with the NJDOE containing 13 separate requests, including the algorithm used in connection with the calculation of funds allocated by the NJDOE to each school district.
After the state granted itself several extensions to responding to the request, the districts filed a complaint and order to show cause in Superior Court against the NJDOE 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 January 11, 2021,” according to court filings.
The plaintiffs, however, filed a second complaint 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, who determined that certain additional records were needed to “operationalize and evaluate it.”
Plaintiffs’ counsel wrote to the deputy attorney general who represented the NJDOE and Larkins in the first OPRA litigation in an effort to avoid having to file a second OPRA request, but they were directed to proceed with filing a second request, which they did May 4.
According to their complaint, “Since Plaintiffs filed the Second OPRA request, the DOE and Larkins have granted themselves six (6) 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. They 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” their 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.’”