In Lacey, the face of the school district has lost its voice.
It lost what once gave it pride, a sense of openness that other districts could envy — even as it has endured, over the past two decades, tragedy as well as the trivial.
Now, under Superintendent Sandra Brower, it chooses to stay silent - with Patch, in particular - even on the simplest of matters. Even on the trivial.
Reporters and editors, such as Patch Local Editor Elaine Piniat, once could merely walk up to the superintendent, ask a question and get an answer, however short.
Now Elaine and others find themselves filling out forms just to do the same thing.
What little is revealed, when a question is asked, might as well not be revealed at all. What little is available must be requested in the form of an Open Public Records Act inquiry.
What little that's provided often comes in the form of a denial, or something very close. If there is any relevant text that is provided, much of it is blacked out and redacted.
This is not just a quick impression, or an impulsive judgment made by disgruntled journalists. The apparent policy — a word that Brower says does not apply to her relationship with the media or the public — has sustained itself for at least two months now.
For Brower, it doesn't appear to be rooted in any personal, principled opposition to what's become an online media staple: Allowing readers to comment on stories, so there is a balance of views with every report.
It's what they're saying about her, and her performance, that seems to gall her.
"Given all of the recent attacks on school personnel including teachers, administrators and board members that continue to be promoted on The Patch, the stories related to student programs and highlights are the ones that we will actively and enthusiastically participate in," Brower wrote in a March email to Patch.
Patch removed comments that were considered personal attacks. Most other comments were left up — even though Brower demanded they be taken down - because they were judged as mere subjective criticism, not a personal attack.
One example was this one:
"Maybe this is part of the $5m increase in the budget. Fight back Lacey!"
For the past two months, Brower has not wavered. While Elaine had long interviews and conversations with former Lacey Superintendent Richard Starodub - in his office, at meetings and on the phone - when he served until last fall, Brower chooses to ignore.
"When The Patch decides to change its policies that currently promote the types of demeaning and vicious attacks on our school community," Brower wrote in the March email, "I would again consider to supporting the good work that you do."
The email came in response to Elaine's request to discuss Lacey's Adequate Yearly Progress status for 2011. Last year, she met with Starodub and Assistant Superintendent Vanessa Clark so they could explain any improvements or shortfalls.
Now Starodub is gone. This year, when she made the request, Elaine was left with an email that, after a small introduction, said this:
"Neither of us are available for this story."
Patch also asked Brower about summer session policies and whether she will be able to respond to questions regarding substitute teachers.
"Policies are reviewed regularly," she wrote.
Both Patch and John Paff, chairman of the state Libertarian Party's Open Government Advocacy Project, have submitted at least eight requests for information on staffing issues. Nearly all personnel matters fall under the protection of the Sunshine Law, and can be withheld from the public.
But can they release information about a teacher's length of service, as well as their salary, since both matters deal with public money?
In Lacey, it's hard to say. In one request, Elaine asked whether a particular teacher is still working in the district. She also asked if the teacher resigned, and if she was tenured; she inquired about her dates of employment.
After submitting it to James Savage, the district's business administrator, she received this:
"Your request does not specify a government record."
Controversy has followed Lacey School District for 30 years — perhaps never more so than in 1997, when a Lacey Township senior gave birth to a baby boy during her prom. The baby was discovered in a trash bag in the ladies room of a catering hall.
The case drew nationwide media attention, nearly all of it unwanted by the district — then headed by Starodub — and the students.
But on graduation day, some school officials helped escort reporters out to the football field — including myself — as some in the crowd showered us with boos and jeers.
The township is unusual in its ways, having a tight-knit community with no clear hangout, no clear place to meet and have coffee, and no traditional downtown business center.
There's the German Butcher on Lacey Road, and the authentic stores that harken back to Lacey's Pinelands' past, when it was truly only known by its sections: Forked River, Bamber Lake and Lanoka Harbor.
But the township also has its suburban sprawl that stretches from one end of Lacey Road to the other. Its community center has become, in a way, the Lacey Board of Education meeting room, where praiseworthy gestures can get beaten down by political posturing.
In 1994, Starodub dealt with it head on, faced with a Lacey Board of Education meeting room that was divided over the fate of the high school's baseball coach.
The coach's supporters called the process demeaning, questioning why the coach was put in this position in the first place. Others were more dead-center. "He's not a good coach. He's hurting kids more than helping them," said one former player who graduated two years before.
In the middle of it all was Starodub, who played mediator and mentor. Before the meeting even started, he talked to reporters (including me) and prepared them for what they were going to see.
The board, he said, wouldn't talk about personnel matters out loud. But they wouldn't stop others from doing the same thing.
"Nothing's decided until it's decided," he said, but saying it with a slight but welcoming smile.
The reporters asked for more. Starodub, in his humble, matter-of-fact way, folded his arms and then made his prediction.
Nothing would be decided that night, he said.
That's all the reporters — and the public — wanted to know. When the meeting ended, it turned out to be true.