SPARTA, NJ -The August 27 Sparta Board of Education meeting format caused more controversy than any of the agenda items. It was announced the meeting would be held at Dykstra Park in an effort to accommodate the public under Governor Murphy’s Executive Order 173, according to a statement released by the board of education.
The executive order rolled back limits to the number of people who could gather indoors from 100 to 25, with several exceptions. The August 8 executive order announcement made exceptions for “religious services or celebrations, political activities, wedding ceremonies, funerals or memorial services.”
Board member Kate Matteson and members of the public did not agree that the board of education was subjected to the new limits of the executive order because, she said, the board of education fell under the “political activities” exception.
The board of education’s counsel Marc Zitomer said political activities referred to “protests not meetings.”
At the meeting, Matteson said she had spoken with an attorney at the New Jersey School Board’s Association about Zitomer’s interpretation. She said the NJSBA attorney “thought it was an odd decision.” She also asked why all board members were not given the opportunity to discuss the options.
“Who is deciding to close the meeting when the schools are supposed to be opening soon,” Matteson said.
Board member Kurt Morris said, “We want all people to attend,” but the board members “have to follow the executive order.”
“This was discussed in every committee meeting,” Board of education president Kim Bragg said.
Board member Robert Zywicki said disagreed with Matteson’s interpretation of Executive Order 173 saying the board of education is not a legislative body because they do not create legislation.
The NJSBA, in published guidelines for local school boards agreed with Zywicki. They said the constitution vests legislative authority with the Senate and General Assembly.
The statement said, “…it is less clear that other entities also engage in legislative proceedings when they take official action.” According to the NJSBA, the Constitution gives authority to the Legislature to designate certain authority to enact legislation, including to “local municipalities but it has not done so with respect to board of education.”
The statement to boards of education concludes, “No exclusion for board of education is expressed in EO 173, nor can such an exclusion be reasonably inferred because boards do not engage in legislative proceedings. Therefore, a conservative reading of the order does not support a conclusion that boards are exempt from the capacity limits established in that order.”
The inclement weather forced the meeting to be held inside. Zywicki said the board of education had made “an heroic effort to meet outside.”
The board of education meeting notice included information that the meeting would be live streamed via YouTube regardless of the location of the meeting. The district’s Policy 0168 was amended to add language related to livestreaming public meetings. It was on the August agenda for a first reading which was approved 9-0.
While the meeting notice also said the meeting would be closed to the public if it moved indoors, several members of the public were admitted to the auditorium of Mohawk Avenue School.
Members of the public were critical of the process that seemed to have the board of education’s attorney Zittomer counting the number of people outside to determine who could come in. Initially some were turned away, according to members of the public but when they challenged him, people were admitted they said.
In an effort to accommodate the public who were viewing the meeting remotely, it was announced in the meeting notice that comments and questions could be emailed to [email protected] by 3:30 p.m. the day of the meeting.
Matteson did not agree with the time limit. Board of education president Kim Bragg said they had polled other districts who had been using the streaming format and the limit of two hours prior to the start of the meeting was “generous.”
In response to questions from Sparta High School student representative Kyle Neuwirth, McQueeney said other districts required the comments to be submitted by noon on the day of the meeting.
The public viewing remotely had submitted 12 comments and questions McQueeney said. Since none addressed agenda items, they were read into the record by Zitomer during the second public comment period.
The next board of education meeting is scheduled for Thursday, September 24 at 7:30 p.m. in the Mohawk Avenue School Auditorium, according to the annual meeting notice.