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Buono: Handling Of ‘Race To The Top’ OPRA Request Anything But Open And Does Not Serve The Public

Department Blows Deadline As Officials Still Scramble to Compile, Approve Documents

TRENTON – Senate Majority Leader Barbara Buono today reacted with disbelief at the state Department of Education’s failure to meet the requirements of the Open Public Records Act and its inability to meet a deadline it imposed on itself for providing the Senate Legislative Oversight Committee with all documents related to the doomed Race to the Top application.

Under state law, the Department of Education had until 5 p.m. today to respond to the Majority Leader’s request to then-Commissioner Bret Schundler on August 26 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” the state’s Race to the Top application. Last week, Buono acceded to an appeal from DOE for a nine-day deadline extension, but turned down a subsequent request for four additional days.

This afternoon, Buono and senior staff at the Senate Democratic Office received phone calls from the Department of Education asking permission for the department to trickle out information as it sees fit. The reason given was that the Attorney General’s office needed to review documents before they could be released.

“The department’s utter inability to provide the Committee with information as required under law either speaks to a heightened level of panic at headquarters of what these documents show, or underscores a greater and disturbing effort to withhold vital information and censor what will eventually trickle out,” said Buono (D-Middlesex). “The people are best served by an open and honest examination of all the circumstances and facts surrounding the loss of $400 million in education funding. While we will not settle for anything less, it has become starkly obvious the administration would.”

Buono noted that Senator Loretta Weinberg has already introduced legislation to tighten the requirements for public entities under OPRA. She also has asked the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services to review the current OPRA statute for other weaknesses exposed by her dealings with the Department of Education that could be closed through new legislation.

“It’s become obvious to me through this process that OPRA as it stands is unenforceable,” said Buono. “Public officials should not be able to use nuances in the law to keep residents in the dark. The administration is using the law’s ambiguities to its advantage to quash this request.”

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.

“The administration’s handling of a simple OPRA request has been anything but open and does not serve the public interest,” said Buono. “It shows why people distrust state government. What is the Governor afraid of? What is the administration trying to conceal by failing to provide the Senate Legislative Oversight Committee with the information it needs to conduct a meaningful hearing?”