What Sen. Ronald Rice of Newark wanted: A full, public meeting of the state Board of Education at which he and others could present evidence of state mismanagement of Newark schools.
What he got: A private meeting with four members of the 11-member board that was closed to the press. If he were just a citizen, he could have testified before an open meeting when the board conducted the public comment portion of its monthly session.
How it happened: State officials manipulated the Open Public Meetings Act to make it appear the state board members–as a full board–would talk about a “personnel matter” involving Newark superintendent Cami Anderson. That’s what Rice, the head of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Public Schools, was told.
Why Rice accepted it: He believed the state’s assurances. He believed the state board would take action against Anderson. But there never was any action on the agenda and the executive session, without Rice’s knowledge, was canceled. He was wrong to trust state officials.
Other damage: The press didn’t know about the meeting and was prevented from covering a legitimate news story–as the state press usually covers the pubic comment portion of the monthly board meeting. So the public never knew there was a discussion of Anderson and Newark.
Why it happened: At a time when Christie is about to announce his presidential run and the city of Newark is about to explode, Hespe wanted to ensure Anderson, the woman he protects more than he protects his own integrity or the interests of Newark’s children, doesn’t get more bad publicity from a statewide press.
Read the long version here:
State education department officials manipulated New Jersey’s Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) in order to prevent an open, public hearing by the state Board of Education on problems in the Newark public schools. The board published a notice—as required by law—that it would hold an “executive session” of all members to deal with “personnel matters.” In fact, no such hearing ever took place.
The notice of the “executive session,” however, was enough to keep the press and public away from what could have been a revealing hearing on how the Newark schools are run.
What did happen was that an unknown number of board members held a closed-door, secret meeting with Anderson’s critics, including three legislators and a representative of Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, to listen to their complaints. The state education department has refused to release documents indicating who attended the meetings and what was said. This site has filed requests under the state’s Open Public Records Act (OPRA)
In short, David Hespe, the state education commissioner, hoodwinked Cami Anderson’s critics—including the two chairs of the Joint Committee on Public Schools. State Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Essex) and Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex). In an interview, Rice, who had initially insisted that the hearing be public, says he still believes the meeting was closed and secret because it was an executive session dealing with a “personnel matter.”
But Michael Yaple, a spokesman for the state education department, put out a statement in which said no such executive session was held. “The Executive Session was noticed for the purpose of discussing a personnel matter, but the executive session meeting did not take place,” Yaple said.
And the president of the state school board, Mark Biedron of Pottersville, said the meeting was conducted in secret and without press notice, not because of any personnel matter before the board, but so he and other members of the board “could engage in an open dialogue” with Anderson’s critics. Participants said no such dialogue occurred; they read their statements and went home.
Biedron justified the exclusion of the press from the meeting on a number of grounds. He said, “The press is already aware of what was happening in Newark” and, apparently, didn’t need to know more. He also said the press could ask Rice and others what was said at the meeting–probably a novel interpretation of the role of a press in a free society. Public meetings can be held in private–and journalists can ask the participants what happened after they are over.
So, Biedron, the founder of a private school and a contributor to Republican causes, decided for the New Jersey press—which is extensively represented at the public portions of state board meetings—that it need not be aware of the feelings of Baraka, three legislators, unions representing teachers and administrators, the Newark NAACP, the Educational Law Center and pre-school educators, and others about what is happening in Newark. They need not know whatever facts these officials might have presented at the secret meeting.
Odd. Every year, Anderson–as the state-appointed superintendent in Newark–is given an open mike at a public state board meeting to cite what she believes is annual progress on her watch. But when her critics want to speak to the board, the session is held behind closed doors with the press and public excluded.
The most extraordinary statement from Biedron came in a discussion of who decided the meeting should be secret. He admitted he asked Rice, who originally demanded a public hearing, if the board could hold an executive session. But when this site asked him whether the idea for keeping the meeting secret was his or Hespe’s, Biedron answered:
“I am not going to answer that question.”
Under state law, the state Board of Education—not the state education commissioner—is head of the education department. The commissioner is merely its secretary. The board, once a powerful and apolitical force in public education, has general supervision of New Jersey’s public schools, an enterprise that spends more than $26.6 billion annually on public education.
So the man at the top of this extraordinary state expenditure doesn’t believe he needs to answer a simple question: Did he or Hespe decide to hold a closed meeting on Newark?
Biedron says: “I am not going to answer that question.”
A little background. Each month the board holds a public meeting. Regularly, it holds public hearings in the afternoon following the morning business session. A few members of the board stay as a committee of the full board and listen to members of the public who sign up to speak. These are open to the press. Open to anyone.
But this month was different. This month the topic of the public portion of the meeting was going to be Cami Anderson. As in the past , a few members–not the full board, as a promised to Rice–and listened. This month, however, because the subject was Newark and Anderson, Hespe and Biedron made the session private, using the excuse it was an “executive session”–although it wasn’t.
And here’s how it happened. It starts with a letter from Rice who is probably the single most persistent champion of public education in Newark. He wrote a letter dated April 1 to Biedron that opened with:
“This correspondence is sent to respectfully request a time and date in April, 2015, that I, as the state senator, can come before the State Board of Education with a delegation of state and local elected government officials, civil rights leaders, clergy members, union leaders, community leaders, and student leaders to present publicly on the record, the many issues, concerns and allegations of the handling of the Newark Public Schools’ administrative and fiscal affairs by the state appointed superintendent and her staff.”
Publicly on the record, he wrote. And he repeated the words several times in the letter. He wanted the meeting to be “on the record.” He wanted “transparency.”
On April 10, Biedron wrote back, inviting Rice and whoever Rice invited—including people who might attend without speaking–to “a special executive session to discuss personnel matters.”
Rice said he spoke on the phone with Biedron—and Biedron confirms this—and the board president said he wanted a private, executive session because this would deal with “personnel matters.” The senator said he wanted an open, public meeting but finally agreed, at least partially because he believed the board members might actually be considering personnel action against Anderson—who hasn’t attended a public school board meeting in Newark for 15 months, who published false New Jersey Rewport Card data showing perfect attendance in the district schools, and whose “renew” school reforms produced disastrous results.
Normal, rational people–people like Rice, for example–might think Anderson is worthy of some sort of discipline–including dismissal. But this is New Jersey where Chris Christie is a little tin god and cowardly sycophants like Hespe do whatever they need to do to keep him happy.
Hespe has been doing this for more than a year–holding out the possibility that Anderson might actually face trouble, even privately badmouthing the woman–only to double-cross the people who trusted him. It’s his way. How he gets his giggles, apparently.
It had to be wishful thinking on Rice’s part. By the time Rice and Biedron spoke, Hespe already had awarded a new three-year contract and a raise.
So what was the “personnel matter” to which Biedron referred? Answer—there wasn’t one. Biedron led Rice and his entourage to believe there would be an executive session to discuss the future of Cami Anderson when all that was on offer was another useless venting session that would lead absolutely nowhere–only this one would be kept out of the press and public eye, making it even more useless.
Biedron refused to say why he told Rice he wanted an executive session to discuss a “personnel matter” and referred all questions to the state education department. The department is refusing to answer that question. All it will say is that the “executive session,” while announced as required by law, never occurred.
Clearly what happened was this: Hespe once again derailed any action—even any bad publicity—against Anderson. He has been a master at this. He told leaders of the New Jersey Education Association and the Newark Teachers union last year that Anderson was about to quit. Not true. He let Baraka believe Anderson was about to quit. Not true.
He assured Newark officials her actions would be curtailed by a special “working group”—not true. The working group never materialized. When Rice held a legislative hearing in January and accused Anderson of “taking the Fifth”—avoiding questions that might incriminate her—Hespe stepped in and stopped the hearing.
Hespe promised religious leaders in Newark he would investigate Anderson’s behavior and report back. Never happened.
Hespe, in short, lies a lot. But, often, he is only lying to Newark residents.
His orders come from Gov. Chris Christie and, no matter what Anderson does, Hespe knows he must keep her—because Christie already has said Anderson will remain Newark’s commissioner as long as he is governor.
The chances are good Hespe will get away with this violation of the so-called “Sunshine Law,” too. The main-stream media, although it was a victim of the violation of the OPMA, probably won’t get too excited about it.
The saddest part is that, while children and parents and employees suffer in Newark, Hespe and Biedron resort to trickery to humiliate earnest people like Rice and others who are trying to help their constituents.
I don’t know why they just don’t tell well-intentioned people who think they are getting a hearing that it really doesn’t matter what people in Newark do or what they say. Newark will remain under state control–and Cami Anderson will bungle her way to an odd sort of fame as probably the most hated bureaucrat in educational history.
To Hespe, Newark doesn’t count.
The children of Newark, like the children of Fort Lee, are Barbara Buono’s children. Certainly not Chris Christie’s children. It’s ok to block a bridge–and it’s ok to mock the sincere efforts of good people to help their boys and girls.