Newark Public Schools shared interim reports on schools with outside organization but refused to give access to parents’ group and other members of public

NEWARK – The ACLU-NJ has reached a successful settlement on behalf of a Newark parents’ group whose request for records from the Newark Public Schools was denied by the district. The Secondary Parents Council (SPC) filed suit on Nov. 7, 2013, after Newark Public Schools denied them records that it had previously shared with a private education foundation, the Foundation for Newark’s Future. Under the agreement, SPC will receive the records it requested.

“Our open government laws guarantee access for the public, not just for members of the public who can pay for the privilege,” said Laura Baker, president emeritus of SPC. “Investing in your child’s future shouldn’t require actual payment, but the Foundation for Newark’s Future had special access to public records precisely because of its financial relationship to the schools. We’re pleased to finally be able to see these records, but it shouldn’t take a lawsuit to get Newark Public Schools to follow the state’s transparency laws.”

The settlement, signed on April 9, stipulates that SPC, and by extension the rest of the public, have access to the interim reports previously shared with the Foundation for Newark’s Future through email attachments.

The Newark Public Schools rejected SPC’s request for records, claiming the documents were deliberative. However, the ACLU-NJ contended that, under the state’s Open Public Records Act, the school district waived any right to conceal the documents from the public when it shared the documents with the Foundation for Newark’s Future.

“While the records at issue may have been confidential intra-agency records at some point, once a government agency willingly discloses records to an outside group, the agency waives any confidentiality to which they may have been entitled,” stated Lawrence Reicher of Dechert, LLP, who represented SPC on behalf of the ACLU-NJ.

The interim reports contained school performance data on testing and information related to the teachers’ contract with the district.

“When it comes to public records, officials don’t get to choose which members of the public can have access and which can’t,” said ACLU-NJ Legal Director Ed Barocas. “A document is either public or not. The administration cannot give favored groups access to records and then claim those records are confidential when groups outside the inner circle request the same documents.”

This lawsuit is one of many concerning transparency with regard to partnerships between the Newark Public Schools and private organizations, much of it stemming from the donation pledged by Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg in 2010.

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