NEWARK, NJ - The Newark Board of Education emailed letters warning two community members that if they continue to be disruptive during public board meetings, they will be banned.
Yolanda Johnson, a parent advocate, received a warning letter shortly before the regular board meeting on Tuesday citing that she was “in violation of decorum” during June 25 and August 20 board meeting.
The warning letter said Johnson engaged in “excessive loudness, calling out, yelling out, generally disruptive behavior, and an attempt to disrupt the meeting,” showing a disregard for the rules of decorum.
Johnson said she does not attend board meetings to cause havoc and that issues only ensue when she tries to correct the record when the board presents misinformation.
“They’re sending a message of not wanting to be held accountable by the public, the parents and the community,” said Johnson, who works with parents to help them navigate the school system. “There’s a disconnect between the community and the elected officials. It’s disheartening.”
She and Denise Cole, who also received a warning letter, were given ban letters in the past. The district was under state control then and it was a board led by President Marques-Aquil Lewis and Arsen Zatarian was general counsel.
The two successfully challenged the letter which was invalidated after the board was unable to produce a policy or law that affirms the need for a ban letter, said Johnson.
After receiving the warning letter on Tuesday afternoon, Cole presented a cease and desist letter to the board and General Counsel Brenda Liss during the August 27 board meeting for “bullying, harassing, and failure to provide the written policy included in the ‘ban letter,’ violating my right to express issue concerning the state of Newark Board of Education,” Cole read aloud.
Johnson read a similar cease and desist letter.
Both Johnson and Cole say there is no specific policy cited in the warning letter and no adherence to a fair due process that gives them a possibility of resolution or appeal.
The general counsel reads a statement of procedure that includes guidelines for board meeting decorum. The board feels it is warning enough.
“Examples of unacceptable behavior that will not be permitted include, but are not limited to name-calling District employee and engaging in personal attacks, racial slurs, excessive loudness, calling out, yelling, generally disruptive behavior, attempting to disrupt meetings or inciting others to do so,” Liss reads aloud during each meeting.
Cole said she previously submitted an open records request for the policy or case law used to craft the statement that Liss reads before the public, the same statement used to justify the warning letters.
The request, handled by her the Office of the General Counsel, came back denied because the document does not exist.
“If she doesn’t have a legal reference that she’s using to send a letter, it means all she’s doing is crafting words on a piece of paper and wanting us to believe that it’s true,” said Cole at the board meeting on Tuesday.
The board would have to show proof of egregious behavior that would warrant a ban from a public meeting and that there were no lesser measures they could take to address the problem.
Ronald Chen, a Rutgers Law School professor who specializes in First Amendment Law, told TAPinto Newark earlier this week that short of violence, the board will have a heavy burden to show that banning is the only way to take order of a public meeting.
“Banning them from a public meeting is pretty extreme,” said Chen. “Obviously, there’s going to be a whole slew of arguments of whether the person they’re trying to ban was really disruptive or not.”
Cole and Johnson both feel targeted by the board. Cole said she had never called anyone out of their name or tried to prevent a meeting from moving smoothly, that she only speaks with she wants to correct the record when she feels the board misspeaks. It is well within her rights to do but she is being treated unfairly, she says.
“You have no right to stop us when we come to this mic. Just because I over speak three minutes does not mean I am stopping the board meeting because when I leave, someone immediately comes up after to speak,” said Cole on Tuesday.
There have been occasions when the board has made exceptions to speakers in the past. Most recently, the board passed a motion to let a community member speak at the regular board meeting on Tuesday even though he had not registered with the Office of Board Relations, in writing, by 4 p.m., five calendar days prior to the regular board meeting as the rules and procedures say.