BOE Votes 5-4 to Disclose Individual Email Addresses
Vote follows debate over whether the school district website should include the email addresses of individual board members.
The decision, which will replace the current listing of a group email address, followed a contentious debate that pitted the board’s “old guard” vs. the board’s “new guard.” Advocates for the plan said it would allow residents to reach out to individual board members and increase transparency, while opponents said it would take the entire board out of email discussions.
BOE member Mitch Slater, who made the proposal at the end of a lengthy board meeting, said the idea came from a suggestion proposed by a resident at the board’s last meeting two weeks ago. BOE member David Finn, who Slater has been aligned with for the past year, quickly joined him.
“Being open and accessible is important,” Finn said.
BOE President Julia Walker quickly raised concerns with the plan, citing state laws that prohibit individual board members from taken action on their own. She said this leads to having a group email. She also cited differences with the Town Council, which has individual emails listed for each of the nine members, along with one group email address.
“The Board of Education can only act when we are seated at a meeting,” Walker said. “We are elected at-large, unlike the Town Council we don’t have a separate constituency.”
Eight of the nine Council members are elected in the town’s four wards, with the mayor being elected at-large.
The ensuing 15-minute debate quickly divided along differing mindsets splitting the board. The group favoring the email listing fell towards the five board members currently in their first term – Slater, Finn, BOE Vice President Rich Mattessich, Mark Friedman and Rosanne Kurstedt – with the four members serving more than one term – Walker, Ginny Leiz, Jane Clancy and Ann Cary – lining up in opposition.
Slater, Finn, Mattessich, Friedman and Kurstedt all placed communication issues towards the top of their campaign platforms during the campaigns over the past three years. Finn was behind the motion in December for the BOE to apologize to the Washington School community on how the school district communicated the intermediate school redistricting decision to the community. The Washington motion was the district’s last 5-4 vote, with Cary and Clancy joining Finn, Mattessich and Slater in favor. Friedman and Kurstedt were not on the board during the vote.
Leiz questioned the public records aspects of emails to individual board members, asking if members would need to copy interim BOE Secretary Vincent Yaniro, the board’s custodian of records, on all emails for archiving purposes. Town Council members are required to copy Town Clerk Claire Gray on all emails with constituents sent via official town email addresses.
While the town and several neighboring school districts use official government email addresses, BOE members would use emails they designate for the purpose, using an email system they decide on. Several board members have already done this and have advertised them to members of the public.
Walker said the current system, which has an email address listed on the board’s website and is received by the nine board members and board spokeswoman Lorre Korecky allows for issues to come to the attention of the entire board. She said this also allows for more discussion.
“It allows us to see any issue raised,” she said. “The public understands when they email us they get the whole board.”
Kurstedt, attending her second meeting, said she did not agree with Walker that residents know where the email address leads too.
“I for one had no idea where that email went,” Kurstedt said. “I felt like I was emailing to who knows where.”
Friedman, also attended his second meeting, said that the individual emails would allow members of the public to contact board members who they would believe is receptive to their mindsets. He said this would allow a resident to possibly bounce an idea off a board member to see if there would be interest amongst other board members.
Mattessich said that he routinely has conversations with members of the public who ask him about education issues. He said that he informs members of the public that these are his own views and not the views of the entire board. He said he sees that continuing in email communication. Under state law, board members cannot make individual decisions on policy, only voting as part of the larger board.
Finn said that the issue he sees with the group email address is there is no guarantee of a response, which he said people expect with an email. He said with individual emails, residents would likely get a response quicker than in the group email setting.
Walker stressed she does not have an issue with board members emailing with members of the public, but did not favor the idea of listing addresses on the website.
“I have no objection to individuals having email exchanges with people,” she said.
Clancy said she wanted to receive more information from the New Jersey School Boards Association on how to approach the issue of individual email addresses being listed and email communication with the public. She said she also wanted to see how other districts handled the issue.
Of the 19 school districts in Union County, excluding Westfield, nine listed email addresses – or provided an email form for contacting individual board members. The districts listing the information are Cranford, Scotch Plains-Fanwood, Mountainside, Plainfield, Union Township, Roselle, Roselle Park, Springfield and Hillside. Districts not listing email addresses for board members are Clark, Summit, New Providence, Berkeley Heights, Garwood, Winfield, Elizabeth, Linden, Rahway, Kenilworth and the county Vo-Tech district.
While Garwood does not list email addresses for the entire board, the website contains a contact form to individually email either the board president or vice president.
Patch’s review of county districts following the board meeting, showed a mix of personal email addresses and school district provided email addresses for board members. Some districts provided one option or the other, with Cranford’s website showing a mix of both personal and district provided.
Cary said she wanted to know if board members would be required to copy the rest of the board on responses to emails from members of the public. Kurstedt offered an amendment to Slater’s original proposal to include the reply all option, but the amendment failed due to the lack of a second.
Mattessich questioned the debate over the proposal.
“I’m not sure why we are trying to build regulations into this,” he said.
Walker said the issue came down to listing the email addresses on the website and creating an official sanction of emailing individual board members. She said this would require some study.
Following the board’s vote, which will be implemented by Korecky, Leiz and Clancy, both, said they want to have more study conducted into the new communication avenue. Leiz said she would like a “procedure put into place regarding the use of email and the records retention aspect, while Clancy said she would like to research how the issue is handled in other districts.
Finn questioned Leiz’ desire for a “procedure,” saying he has not heard the term used in his two years on the board, noting that policies have been developed on other issues. Leiz, the policy committee chairwoman, said it would likely be developed as a by-law since it governed board member behavior. During the debate, it was mentioned the board’s by-laws currently address board members emailing each other but not members of the public.
“The goal is transparency,” Slater said of his proposal.