District, JCBOE blocking OPRA request regarding potential segregation at Frank Conwell P.S. No. 3
Felicia Palmer, campaign manager of The Children First Team in 2014, is attempting to force the district to comply with an OPRA request she believes will prove racial and economic discrimination in admitting students into the Dual Languages Program at Frank Conwell P.S. No. 3.
The Jersey City Public School District, and the Jersey City Board of Education (JCBOE), are blocking a parent’s request to secure documents that could help determine whether prekindergarten through fourth grade (PreK4) classes at Frank Conwell P.S. No. 3 are being purposely segregated based on income levels, and, according to her attorney, the district is prepared to continue concealing the documents for a year or more pending an appellate panel’s ruling.
Felicia Palmer’s battle places her up against a school district with deep pockets (a $667 million budget) to continue denying her the data, while all Palmer has is a lawyer representing her on a contingency basis, meaning she can only afford to pay her lawyer should she ultimately win damages against the district.
Her attorney is one of New Jersey’s leading authorities on the state’s Open Public Records Act (OPRA) and Open Public Meetings Act – Walter M. Luers of Clinton, chair of the Foundation for Open Government in New Jersey.
“This district is extremely repressive when it comes to trying to get public documents,” Luers told Real Jersey City. “There is absolutely no justification for their denial of my client’s OPRA request. They are using the fact that it involves the records of children as a pretext, but, I suspect, they just don’t want anyone snooping into their business because they have something to hide.”
To gauge income levels of students in the classrooms, Palmer filed an OPRA request in August 2014 with Board Secretary/Business Administrator Luiggi Campana to secure student applications for federally-subsidized free or reduced school meals covering two PreK4 classes. Campana denied it, prompting the court challenge as per the OPRA law.
Ultimately, Palmer expects it will prove the district has discriminated in making opportunities for certain PreK4 students to take part in the school’s Dual Language Program – a form of bi-lingual education that teaches curriculum using two languages.
The push by JCBOE Attorney Ramon Rivera to continue denying the information by the district, partially controlled by the state, comes even though Palmer, who has been active in the district’s PTA and parent council, prevailed in the Law Division of Hudson County Superior Court in October 2014.
At the time, Judge Barry P. Sarkisian, granted the plaintiff an order to show cause.
In his petition to the judge, Luers wrote, “As set forth herein, school records must be disclosed under the New Jersey Open Public Records Act if students’ personal information is redacted.”
“Based on the reasons set forth in their denial,” Luers continued, “we anticipate that defendant will argue that all student records are sacrosanct and never subject to disclosure under OPRA. But courts, including New Jersey’s Appellate Division, have resolved the tension between laws that protect student privacy and laws that require disclosure of public records by requiring that personal information be redacted from public records that should otherwise be disclosed.”
Luers cited established New Jersey case law in trying to show why such is the case.
The attorney also cited N.J.A.C. 1:6A-162(a) under the state’s administrative code. He claimed it permits “the use of initials and the redaction of personal identifiers” as a way “to resolve the tension between confidentiality and access to public records.”
“While personally-identifiable information in such applications are not subject to OPRA, such as students’ names, addresses and similar identifiable information, demographic information, such as whether an application has been granted or denied, or the race of the applicant, is not personally identifiable information because it cannot be linked to any individual student, ” Luers wrote.
In an email, district spokesperson and Superintendent Dr. Marcia Lyles’ chief of staff, Dr. Maryann Dickar, told Real Jersey City, “As a matter of policy, we cannot comment on a case that is still under active litigation.”
Luers advised Sarkisian his client is requesting the data because she is “concerned about an apparent pattern of income and racial inequities between Prek4 classes at School #3.”
He noted that Palmer’s interest in the information “is to learn, for each P.S. #3 Prek4 classroom, what percentage of students are making applications” to participate in the reduced (cost) meal program, “what percentage are being granted or denied, and the racial makeup of the classrooms.”
Luers said the two sides are next expected to confer on June 23 as his client prepares for the appeal, but he noted that the back and forth will ultimately result in no appellate court ruling being reached for “at least another year to a year-and-a-half” from early May 2015.
But Palmer’s spirits remain high and undaunted.
Asked what she will do in the interim to try keeping her cause in the limelight, she wrote in an email, “I will continue to advocate for the children of Jersey City Public Schools along with people like Gina Verdibello and Monique Andrews. We have been impactful over the last few years as watchdogs — we’re represented at every meeting and the JCBOE knows that we are ready and willing to take them on in court if need be. Parents can’t make it out to all the meetings but we intend to be the eyes and ears of parents to ensure that all children are afforded equal access to a quality education.”
As to why the district and, at least a faction of the board, are driving so hard to continue concealing the documents, Palmer wrote it’s because “they know that the information will show they have been deliberate and willful in allowing inequities to exist in our schools. They know that, at PS#3, the evidence will show that the majority of students in their Dual-Language Program — especially in the PreK — don’t match with the demographics of the rest of the school.”
“The PreK Dual Language student’s income is disproportionately higher and the ethnic background disproportionately ‘whiter’ than the students in the general PS#3 student body who are majority low-income black and Latino,” she alleged.
She added the district fears releasing the information because “it will clearly show that Dr. Lyles’ commitment to ‘equity everywhere’ is a farce when it relates to accommodating her ‘base’ of political supporters and ensuring their children have Chromebooks, small classes and the best facilities.”
“If Dr. Lyles really believed in equity she would be examining this on her own outside of this lawsuit but she doesn’t care — ‘Equity and Excellence Everywhere’ is just a catchy slogan she came up with that’s easy to remember because it starts with all ‘Es’ and sounds good.”
Palmer stressed that she believes Lyles is “turning a blind eye” toward potential discrimination for political, and not racial, reasons.
“I do think the district is complicit in allowing a small constituency of influential, well-funded and politically-aligned ‘parents’ to create their own exclusive private school within our public schools,” she wrote. “I’ve been a Downtown, Hamilton Park resident since 1996. I’ve seen the evolution from when parents scorned the public schools until now, when they more readily allow their children to attend them. In the past, parents would send their kids to private PreK’s and move to the burbs when it was time for elementary school.”
“But the perfect storm happened — the recession and mortgage crisis hit simultaneously resulting in parents having less money for pricey private preks stuck in houses that they couldn’t sell and move. So they had to make the public schools work for them. But the mindset was, ‘if I’m going to be in the public schools, I’m going to be in an elite program.’ The Dual Language Program was positioned as such a program – selective and exclusive to those ‘in the know.’ As a result, the program would attract all the Downtown, upper-income mommies who would share the registration date amongst themselves in exclusive Yahoo Groups and flood the application pool. They would lie and say their children spoke ‘some Spanish’ or had Spanish heritage to meet the criteria for the Dual Language Program. Meanwhile, no one from the district was knocking on the doors at Villa Borinquen, La Iglesia Pentecostal, Unico or any of the predominantly low-income, Spanish-speaking communities to make them aware of the program. So the district has known what is going on and because of political affiliations, have turned a blind eye.”
Chris Neidenberg is a freelance reporter who can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.