Buono Denies Second Opra Extension Request, Blasts Education Department For Lack Of Transparency

TRENTON – Senate Majority Leader Barbara Buono this morning denied a request from state education officials seeking an additional four-day delay to comply with her Open Public Records Act request for materials related to the Race to the Top – and only two days after the department asked for a nine-day deadline extension.

Buono also blasted officials at the Department of Education for “a galling lack of transparency,” by preemptively telling the Senator that certain e-mails and correspondence between state officials regarding the Race to the Top application would not be provided.

“For an administration that boasts of its transparency, the amount of wool it is now trying to pull over residents’ eyes is wholly unacceptable,” said Buono (D-Middlesex). “If we are going to be able to put the proper oversight mechanisms in place to prevent a repeat of this whole episode, we need to have an unvarnished view of everything that occurred.”

Buono, who chairs the Senate Legislative Oversight Committee, submitted a request for “all documents prepared, received, maintained, controlled or otherwise possessed by you, your employees or any independent contractors employed by the New Jersey Department of Education related to, discussing or describing New Jersey’s 2010 application to the U.S. Department of Education for The Race to the Top Funding” on August 26. The state’s deadline for responding under law was close-of-business Tuesday; at 4:27 p.m. Tuesday afternoon, the department asked for an extension until Sept 16 to fulfill the request, which Buono granted.

On August 30 she sent a follow-up request to the department, clarifying that “all documents” would include e-mail correspondence regarding the state’s Race to the Top application. In response to that request, received yesterday afternoon – again shortly before the statutory response deadline under OPRA – the department now said they need until Sept 20, and also notified the Majority Leader that some e-mails and correspondence would not be provided, as the department considers them “deliberative.”

“The department’s use of the word ‘deliberative’ is very ironic, considering the only deliberate thing going on here is an attempt to cover-up what really happened behind the scenes,” said Buono. “The department also apparently is having a hard time understanding that ‘all documents’ means ‘all documents.’ It’s almost comical that they would now ask for extra time to provide the information they previously said they could get the Committee four days earlier.”

The information is intended to be part of the Legislative Oversight Committee’s Sept 23 hearing into the cause of a flubbed response to a question that cost the state 10th-place in the competition and $400 million in federal education aid. The committee will review the materials and work to ensure that, going forward, similar applications are handled with proper and adequate oversight before being submitted.

Buono said she fully expects the department to live up to her previously approved Sept 16 deadline for all Race to the Top materials – including e-mails and correspondence.

“The department is merely attempting to run up as close as possible to the hearing date to deny legislators the opportunity to scrutinize the information we need to conduct a meaningful hearing,” said Buono. “It’s a transparent and frankly cynical attempt to prevent the public from making their own judgment regarding what transpired in this devastating loss of $400 million.”