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Home News v. Board of Educ. of Borough of Spotswood

January 17, 1996

THE HOME NEWS, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
BOARD OF EDUCATION OF THE BOROUGH OF SPOTSWOOD, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT.



On appeal from the Superior Court, Law Division, Middlesex County.

Approved for Publication January 17, 1996.

Before Judges Baime, Kestin and A.a. Rodriguez.* The opinion of the court was delivered by Kestin, J.A.D.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Kestin

The opinion of the court was delivered by

KESTIN, J.A.D.

Plaintiff newspaper appeals from the trial court's dismissal of its complaint seeking access to certain documents used by members of defendant Board of Education and certain of its officers in the budget planning process. Although the complaint contained four separate counts, each asserting a different basis for plaintiff's claim of right to access, only two such grounds are before us in this appeal. An assertion of right under the United States and New Jersey Constitutions in the third count of the complaint was not actively pursued at the trial level. A claim under the Open Public Meetings Act, N.J.S.A. 10:4-6 to -21, although pleaded in the fourth count of the complaint and briefed in the trial court, was not addressed by the trial court in its decision and has not been argued on appeal. The issues before us, therefore, are limited to plaintiff's claims under the "Right-to-Know Law", N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1 to -4, and the common law right of access, see Higg-A-Rella, Inc. v. County of Essex, 141 N.J. 35, 46, 660 A.2d 1163 (1995). As to these, we affirm.

As stated in the complaint, plaintiff sought access to "copies of the proposed school district budget and supporting documentation[]" for the 1994-95 budget year. The record establishes, however, that plaintiff was never denied access to the proposed school district budget, but that what it sought specifically were copies of budget projections and other material used by Board members and officers in the budget planning process. In the Fall of 1993, when the planning process for the 1994-95 budget year began, defendant's Superintendent of Schools requested projections of budgetary need from the district's four school principals and other officers and supervisors. Once received, these projections were turned over to the school district's Business Administrator who compiled them along with other information into a "budget workbook". A similar workbook had been prepared annually for more than nine years; and the contents were discarded at the close of each year's budget planning process. A different color cover was used each year. The budget workbook for 1994-95 was known as the "green book".

In depositions, the Superintendent and the Business Administrator described the "green book", its use in the budget planning process, and how it came to be the subject of this suit. The book was initially compiled for board members in January, 1994, and was continually supplemented and revised during the budget planning process. The book was especially useful at budget workshop meetings, some of which were open to the public and others of which were closed. Initially, it contained only expense estimates because state aid revenue projections had not yet been provided by the State Department of Education. The format of the presentation was substantially similar to the "chart of accounts" provided by the Department that all school districts were obliged to follow, although some of the accounts were presented in the "green book" in more detail than was required by the Department.

The budget process in 1994 lasted until April 7 when the Board voted final approval of the proposed budget after a public hearing had been held. Tentative approval had occurred on March 17 and the tentatively approved budget had been made available to the public on March 22. After one of the budget workshop meetings in late February, a reporter employed by plaintiff had requested a copy of the "green book". The Superintendent did not furnish a copy, but instead prepared a two- page summary of the information to give to the reporter at a March 8 meeting. The reporter was not present at the meeting to receive the summary, and it was discarded because, as a result of the meeting, the figures presented had changed. Plaintiff's complaint seeking access to the "green book" was filed on March 23.

In their depositions, the Business Administrator and Superintendent cited three reasons why the "green book" was not disclosed.

It lists all the proposed personnel and their salaries and their names which usually will change numerous times before the Board finally adopts a tentative budget. It also goes into detail with our special ed children as to who they are and what schools they are attending and their classifications which are, from my understanding of the law, prohibited under federal law that they have the right of privacy on those.

[The] Public is entitled to a complete budget. That is not a complete budget. And taking individual items out of the context of the complete budget is not giving the public the information that it needs or should have and it's not a complete picture of the financial position of the district.

After a hearing on plaintiff's order to show cause, the trial Judge held that plaintiff was not entitled to the relief it sought under either the Right-to-Know Law or the common law right of access. In reaching this Conclusion, the trial Judge had the benefit of the parties' briefs and oral arguments as well as the depositions of defendant's Superintendent and Business Administrator. A ruling declining to hear the oral testimony of the reporter who sought the information was well within the trial Judge's discretion.

This appeal might be seen as moot because, once the 1994-95 budget process concluded, plaintiff may no longer have had any stake in the disclosure of materials used in that process. Defendant, however, has not moved to dismiss on this ground and we will not do so sua sponte. The appeal involves an issue which, although typically rendered moot by the passage of time thus evading review, inevitably recurs, probably on an annual basis, and should therefore be addressed, Clark v. Degnan, 83 N.J. 393, 397, 416 A.2d 816 (1980), especially since it is one of considerable public ...


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