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Rice v. Union County Regional High School Board of Education

Decided: December 29, 1977.


Lynch, Bischoff and Kole. The opinion of the court was delivered by Bischoff, J.A.D.


This appeal presents issues relating to the Open Public Meetings Act, N.J.S.A. 10:4-6 et seq. , which became effective January 19, 1976, and the exception pertaining to personnel matters contained therein. N.J.S.A. 10:4-12 b(8).

Defendant Union County Regional High School Board of Education (hereafter board), being a regional board of education, was required by N.J.S.A. 18A:13-10 and N.J.S.A. 18A:13-17 to submit a proposed budget for the 1976-1977 term to the voters of the regional district at the annual school election to be held on the first Tuesday in March.

The proposed budget was prepared during nine sessions of closed meetings of the board held between November 11, 1975 and January 13, 1976. During these meetings it was determined that, for reasons of economy, it was necessary to reduce the employment staff of the board by 20 positions.

A tentative school budget, dated January 13, 1976, which had been agreed upon at the meeting held that date and which reflected the decision to eliminate the 20 positions, was adopted January 20, 1976.

Between February 9 and March 1 representatives of the board attended 17 meetings of various groups such as PTA, service clubs and parents' committees, as well as one meeting of the municipal governing body, at which meeting the budget was explained. A public hearing on the budget was held at a regular meeting of the board on February 23, 1976, following which the budget was formally adopted in final form for submission to the voters.

The budget so adopted by the board was defeated at the school election on March 2, 1976. The constituent municipalities -- after meeting with the board on March 15, 1976 -- certified a budget $250,000 less than the one which the voters had failed to approve, thus requiring the board to consider further reductions in its employment staff.

About April 2, 1976 the board's administrative staff mailed to each board member a list of names of specific employees recommended for termination. No action was taken by the board with respect to such recommendations until an adjourned regular meeting, held on April 20, 1976. At that meeting, at the conclusion of a portion which was open for public discussion, the minutes disclose that the following occurred:

Mr. Vitale, President, called for a resolution to be offered for the Board of Education to meet in Executive Session.

He announced that privileged personnel items would be discussed in Executive Session. He further stated that any decisions reached during Executive Session would be made known to the public when action is formally taken by the Board.

Mr. Vitale announced that the Board would return to regular public session following the conclusion of the Executive Session.

Following the adoption of the requested resolution and the holding of the executive session, the regular public meeting was resumed and several resolutions relative to personnel matters were adopted. One of the resolutions so adopted provided that "the named personnel in the positions set forth next to their names, in the list attached hereto and made a part hereof, will be terminated from their employment effective June 25, 1976 for the reasons hereinafter set forth * * *."

The names of 17 employees were on the list. Seven of them were nontenured teachers. The termination of these 17 employees is the reason for this appeal.

The board gave all the nontenured teachers affected by the resolution the notice required by N.J.S.A. 18A:27-10 prior to April 30, 1976, and they were all afforded an opportunity for a hearing pursuant to the rule of Donaldson v. North Wildwood Bd. of Ed. , 65 N.J. 236 (1974).

Plaintiffs Regina Rice and the Union County Regional High School Teachers Association, Inc. (Association) on June 4, 1976 instituted this action in lieu of prerogative writs seeking "an order holding the personnel action set forth in defendant's resolution of April 20, 1976 null and void" because of the failure of the board to comply with the Open Public Meetings Act. The matter was submitted for determination on affidavits and oral argument, and the trial judge, by letter opinion, held the action of the board constituted substantial compliance with the statute and judgment was entered dismissing the complaint.

Preliminarily we note that some arguments in both the trial court and this court were concerned with the timeliness of the institution of this action. These procedural contentions are without merit, and ...

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