Sparta Board of Education Wrangles over OPRA Requests

Credits: Jennifer Dericks

SPARTA, NJ – This is not the first time there has been controversy over how to handle OPRA requests for the Sparta Board of Education. At the October board meeting, during the New Business portion of the agenda, board member Frank Favichia requested that the topic of posting OPRA requests on the district web site be discussed in the relevant committee. He repeated the request at the November meeting.

OPRA in an acronym for Open Public Records Act, legislation that governs public access to government records.  The act also defines which records are considered government records, which are exempt from disclosure and establishes an appeal process should a request be denied. 

Favichia’s request sparked a discussion that was at times confrontational among board members. He stated he was seeking to have the request, including the name of the requestor, posted on the web site. 

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“There is a cost to the district. Some of the requests are over the top. Putting the names out there are a way to put it out to the public who is causing all of the costs,” said Favichia. “We all ran on a ticket of exposing the costs that are unnecessary.”

Many OPRA requests are reviewed by the district's attorney to determine the proper course of action for handling the request.

Board member Kim Yoemans did not agree.  “How is it improving transparency?”  She said the responses should be posted as well. 

Favichia said, “To add the responses up there [would mean] more costs because of the cost of taking the time to post it.”

Yoemans and Brenda Beebe were concerned that this initiative was intended to intimidate members of the community from making requests.  Favichia said, “OPRAs have been used for intimidation of the district staff and board members.”

Beebe also wanted the response to the OPRA request posted along with whether the request was fulfilled or denied and the costs associated with the request.

Yoemans said “There are more effective ways to lower legal fees like getting Linda Alvarez more training so she feels more comfortable answering them on her own.”

Superintendent Dennis Tobin said, “That won’t be the recommendation from my office.”

Yoemans also said, “We don’t get that many [requests].” 

Board Secretary and Business Administrator Alvarez responded, “I talk to my peers around the county and they only get one or two a year.” The board of education's posted minutes indicate 25 requests over the past 12 months with a reported associated cost of $5288.25. 

Jack Surdoval said, “Linda Alvarez is acting to protect the board and the district. We as a board want the attorney’s opinion, to protect us.”

Yoemans continued to disagree asserting that the law had been written with “intention to be implemented by the BA, not get the attorney involved in every request.”

There is a history of people using information garnered from an OPRA request to bolster legal action against the school district. 

Richard Bladek said he wanted to see the request and the findings posted “so there is no repeat.”

Tobin concluded the discussion by asking that all of the committees review the topic of posting OPRA requests on the district's web site.  

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