TRENTON, N.J. -- The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey on Tuesday filed a lawsuit against the state's biggest city for refusing to release records related to a $100 million gift pledged to its schools by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.
The ACLU filed the lawsuit against Newark on behalf of a parents group denied access to records requested under New Jersey's Open Public Records Act.
The initial April 1 request sought to review correspondence among Zuckerberg, Newark employees including Democratic Mayor Cory Booker, state officials and others involved in the deal.
"As parents, as taxpayers and as citizens, we have a need and right to know how the money pledged to Newark's public schools will ultimately serve Newark's public school students," said Laura Baker, who filed the initial request and has a granddaughter in the school system.
The $100 million pledge was announced a year ago by Republican Gov. Chris Christie, Booker and Zuckerberg as they appeared together on Oprah Winfrey's talk show.
Zuckerberg described the gift as a "challenge grant" to Booker, who's trying to raise $100 million more to match what Zuckerberg has promised to contribute over five years.
The gift was presented as a way to try to improve the district, which has been plagued for years by low test scores, poor graduation rates and crumbling buildings. The district was taken over by the state in 1995 after instances of waste and mismanagement, including the spending of taxpayer money by school board members on cars and restaurant meals.
Parents said they want to know more information about how the highly publicized gift would be used.
After requesting several extensions to have time to locate documents, the city denied the request on July 19 in a letter, saying the communications between Booker and Zuckerberg "were not made in the court of the mayor's official duties."
The letter went on to say that if Booker were exercising his official duties, the documents were privileged.
What's known as "executive privilege" protects the governor from disclosing records that contain advice to him on matters related to his executive functions, but it doesn't apply to other elected officials in the state, ACLU-NJ president Frank Corrado said.
"By invoking executive privilege, the City of Newark has waded into unchartered territory in an attempt to make sure these records never see the light of day," Corrado said.
But the records that parents and the ACLU are asking for don't exist, Booker told The Huffington Post Tuesday evening, noting that the city has been diligent in disclosing where the funds are going, namely through local media like the Star-Ledger. Five new high schools across the city, for example, received $975,000 of the Facebook grant to hire principals and staff, recruit students and plan curriculum, the Star-Ledger reported in April.
Booker said he missed an open request from parents and ACLU from months ago that sought e-mails between him, Christie and Facebook officials regarding the origins of the grant.
"What we basically said was there are no emails, I have no e-mails," Booker told HuffPost. "There are no text messages, no electronic records of the origins of the grant. We want to make sure that the public knows what is going on with that money, but I'm not sure why they're looking for e-mails from over a year ago. There are none and they don't exist."
The mayor noted that funds from Zuckerberg's gift are being put toward a number of initiatives, including about $500,000 for economic consultants and financial analysts for the district in addition to school model reforms, which have been a subject of controversy in the city.
The latest plan for doling out portions of the gift, Booker said, is to funnel $1 million into expanded learning time through longer school days as a pilot program -- and filter more money into the initiative if it works. Another "few hundred thousand" will go into creating outdoor spaces like playgrounds and about $700,000 were spent on community preparations to understand district needs.
"ACLU is also pushing that we're not being transparent with the money," Booker told HuffPost. "That's 100 percent not true."
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