|NMU||NEW JERSEY||Freedom of Information||Mar 31, 2000|
Tenure charges against school superintendent are public
- Formal charges against a tenured public school official are public records once they are approved by the school board, an appellate court ruled.
A state appeals court has ruled that the formal charges brought against a tenured school superintendent of alleged wrongdoing are public under the Right-to-Know Law.
Releasing the so-called “tenure charges” to the public does not conflict with secrecy provisions of a state law that protects tenured employees from unwarranted or capricious terminations, a three-judge panel of the Superior Court, Appellate Division ruled March 28.
The case stems from a 1998 dispute between a school superintendent and his employer, the Atlantic City Board of Education, which suspended the superintendent and placed him on administrative leave. The board then began to prepare formal charges that would satisfy the requirements for dismissal of tenured employees mandated by the Tenure Employees Hearing Law.
The superintendent filed suit in state court to overturn the suspension, asserting the board had violated the tenure law and discriminated against him, among other things. The Press of Atlantic City intervened, claiming the tenure charges were public records. The superintendent argued that releasing the tenure charges would violate his privacy and confidentiality provisions of the tenure law.
The board of education then certified the tenure charges against the superintendent and submitted them to the state Commissioner of Education, as required by law. The trial court suspended the case until after the commissioner’s office could hold an administrative hearing on the suspension and denied the newspaper’s motion to release the tenure charges. The newspaper appealed.
The appellate court said tenure charges fall under the definition of public records once they have been approved by board of education and filed with its secretary. No exemption could be applied to keep them secret, the court said.
The court compared the process of removing a tenured employee to grand jury proceedings. The proceedings themselves are secret, but the formal tenure charges, like grand jury indictments, must be made public, the court said.
The actual documents involved had been released prior to the court’s decision, but the court nonetheless heard the case because the issue was “of significant public importance and capable of repetition.”
The superintendent had received more than a year’s worth of salary while on suspension before accepting a $260,000 buyout offer of his contract and resigning last year. The administrative review board never ruled on the formal charges.
(Williams v. The Board of Education of Atlantic City; Media Counsel: Nelson Johnson, Atlantic City)
© 2000 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press