Last week, the New Jersey Appellate Division ruled in favor of a local board of education in a case challenging whether the board complied with the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) when its members voted via an electronic voting system to approve a send-receive agreement. NJSBA appeared as amicus curiae in the case, arguing in support of the Princeton Board of Education.
In Schwartz v. Princeton Board of Education, during a properly advertised public meeting, the board deliberated in open session for over 40 minutes on renewing a long-standing send-receive agreement with a constituent district. When it came time for the board to vote on the matter, board members cast votes on laptop computers using an electronic voting system used by boards across the state. After the votes were cast, each board member’s vote and the overall result were displayed on a screen in the boardroom, and it was announced at the meeting that the agreement had been approved. The meeting was also livestreamed so that members of the public who were not physically at the meeting would know what was happening.
The plaintiffs, two district residents, alleged that the screen was dim and that they could not see how each individual board member voted at the meeting. They further claimed that because a member of the public would not have known how each board member voted on this item at the meeting, the board was using a secret process and violated the OPMA such that the vote should be overturned. The board maintained that they had complied with the requirements of the OPMA and therefore the voting results remained valid.
The trial court upheld the board’s vote, noting that no objections regarding the screen visibility were raised at the meeting and the board had intended for the public to see how each board member voted. Moreover, the trial court found that by livestreaming the meetings, the board had “gone the extra mile.” In its Oct. 30 decision, the Appellate Division affirmed the trial court, finding that the board had followed the requirements of the OPMA in voting on the agreement.
Notably, in its amicus curiae brief before the Appellate Division, the NJSBA stressed that there is no requirement under the OPMA or New Jersey school law for a roll call vote on a send-receive agreement. The Appellate Division agreed, further finding that the meeting minutes did note the board members’ individual votes, as required by the OPMA. Ultimately, the court found that the issue of whether to impose a requirement to read the votes aloud, where a send-receive agreement is at issue, is best left to the legislature or the governor. The court’s findings in this case were important for boards of education that need to understand how to use new voting system technology while staying in compliance with the OPMA, particularly because many boards may be considering using these systems for the first time during meetings, remote or otherwise, during the current pandemic.
NJSBA as Amicus NJSBA participates as amicus curiae, or “friend of the court,” in cases that have an impact on school districts statewide. This NJSBA advocacy service helps shape legal decisions affecting public education in New Jersey. In the past several years, the Association has been involved as amicus curiae in more than two dozen cases before state and federal courts and administrative agencies. The NJSBA has collaborated with other agencies, supporting New Jersey public entities in these amicus curiae matters. The New Jersey League of Municipalities joined the NJSBA’s brief in the Schwartz case.
For more information about this case, as well as complying with the OPMA when using electronic voting systems, board members should consult with their board attorney or call the New Jersey School Boards Association Legal and Labor Relations Department at (609) 278-5254.