NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—At Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting, longtime board attorney George Hendricks ordered school security guards to cease efforts to distribute the print edition of this newspaper.
Saying that New Brunswick Today “has a lot of political information in it,” officials declared that it could not be distributed on school grounds.
On stage in the high school’s auditorium, Hendricks declared, “There are many people who think it’s a political rag,” people including himself and several board of education members.
But within 48 hours, Hendricks had changed his tune, blaming the mistake on a long night and declaring that the newspaper could be distributed on school grounds as it had been for several months without incident.
“We overreached,” Hendricks said. “I guess at 10:30 or 11 at night after a long meeting, heads… weren’t properly functioning.”
Questioned about the seemingly unconstitutional and arbitrary decision that night, Board President Patricia Sadowski backed up Hendricks, “humbly” asking that the community newspaper not be distributed following the meeting because she did not care for its contents.
Sadowski, a close ally of Mayor James Cahill, cited unspecified inaccuracies in the newspaper, but declined to say what what they were.
“I’ll tell you after the meeting,” she said. An email sent to Sadowski Tuesday night seeking corrections has not yet been returned.
New Brunswick Today has been available online for over two years and in print for six months, publishing hundreds of articles so far, including several about the city’s controversial school board.
The monthly 24-page bilingual newspaper is provided free of charge and produced largely by city residents to increase the level of public discourse.
It was in fact a New Brunswick Public Schools employee who had first asked for a copy of the newspaper.
A security guard who recognized this reporter as a journalist remarked, “You didn’t bring any copies of the paper?”
In response to that request and the large crowd that showed up for the final meeting of the school year, New Brunswick Today’s distribution manager Timothy Cobb arrived on scene shortly thereafter where he quietly began passing out Issue #6 of NBT in the back of the auditorium to folks departing early from the meeting.
Within minutes, a different school security guard approached this reporter and ordered the distribution of the paper be halted.
The guard threatened to “call the police” and have them escort this reporter from the building, in a videotaped conversation released this Thursday on New Brunswick Today’s Facebook page.
During the conversation, an agreement was quickly reached that the newspaper could be handed out, only to those leaving, in the hallway outside the auditorium.
Previously, the guard had said the paper could only be handed out at the “front door” to the school.
“You can give ’em out, when [the board meeting]’s done and everyone’s leaving,” said the guard who agreed to take a newspaper himself, but only after the meeting.
The altercation passed with few taking notice, as the numerous celebrations for students, retirees, and teachers continued throughout the evening.
But during one of the presentations, Hendricks crept up to the same guard and ordered him to entirely halt the distribution of the paper.
Questioned later in the meeting, Hendricks could not cite the state law he was acting under, despite his claim of being very familiar with it throughout his time as the board’s attorney “long before [New Brunswick Today] came on the scene.”
Hendricks indicated there was “a state statue that prohibits passing out of literature in school,” somewhere in New Jersey’s Title 18A.
The statute he was thinking of, which specifically outlaws the distribution of campaign literature to school pupils on school grounds, clearly does not apply in this case.
Both the online and print edition of New Brunswick Today have never included advertisements for or against any candidate for elected office.
New Brunswick Today’s publisher Sean Monahan was part of a three-candidate team that ran against Sadowski and two incumbents in April 2013, and the newspaper endorsed the November 2012 ballot question which instituted school elections in the first place.
All of the board members at the time opposed having elections.
The Board of Education was previously appointed directly by Mayor Cahill, but voters narrowly passed the referendum instituting direct election of board members by the voting public.
Hendricks, a former City Councilman who runs a private law firm with his brother, also earns a $113,400 salary as the school board’s attorney. Hendricks was one of several lawyers who were involved in botching the city’s historic first-ever school board election in January 2013, as we reported at the time.
Three unelected members of the board, including city employee and former BOE President Edward Spencer, are serving their final year in office before they must face a citywide election for the first time.
Charlie is the founder and editor of New Brunswick Today, and the winner of the Awbrey Award for Community-Oriented Local Journalism. He is a proud Rutgers University journalism graduate, a community organizer, and a former independent candidate for mayor of New Brunswick.