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Betraying the public

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Twice in the past week, school district boards of education entered into illegal executive sessions to deliberate difficult budgets. Twice in the past week, taxpayers in two north country school districts have been betrayed by their elected school officials and their highly paid school administrations.

In Massena, the board entered into executive session to discuss budget deliberations that included painful cuts in both programs and personnel. Their rationale: “personnel” was the topic of discussion. Unfortunately, state law does not actually permit the broad rubric of personnel as a legitimate topic of an executive session – it must be limited to “the medical, financial, credit or employment history of a particular person or corporation, or matters leading to the appointment, employment, promotion, demotion, discipline, suspension, dismissal or removal of a particular person or corporation.”

In budget deliberations, boards of education are not dealing with the issues of individuals, although the final impact of a position cut is extremely personal. The boards should be cutting positions based on class sizes, program needs and overall, districtwide considerations. If they are actually making decisions based on “matters leading to…removal of a particular person”, they are pretty clearly not trimming the budget, they are getting rid of someone they no longer want as a district employee, and violating both state tenure laws and union contracts. If they are indeed making position cuts based on programming and educational needs, then they are not discussing removal of a particular person.

Beyond that, while the board and administrator were discussing position cuts, they were also discussing general budget matters, and there is nothing that is more the public’s business than a school district’s annual spending plan. It is absolutely essential that discussions on public budgets be made in public. By hiding behind the spurious cloak of personnel matters, the board shut the public out of arguably the most important, and most important to be public, matter the board will discuss in any given year.

In Brasher Falls, St. Lawrence Central School’s board entered into executive session to discuss a budget that is even more dire than Massena’s. Included in that budget, in addition to the loss of 18 positions, was a tax levy hike of 14.3 percent, meaning a tax-bill hike of $200 for the owner of a property assessed at $70,000. This is an enormous increase, unmatched this year across the north country. Yet none of the public heard the deliberations among board members on this dire spending plan because, it’s superintendent told a Johnson Newspapers reporter, the board would be discussing “personnel.”

Elected officials in our towns, villages and school districts need to recognize this: when they were selected to represent us in these positions, we expected them to act in the interests of their constituents, and we expected them to do this under the laws that govern their behavior. When municipal and school boards treat the open meetings law with casual contempt, they treat the people who elected them with contempt. We actually expect them to follow the law.

While decisions they make may not be politically expedient or universally popular, the decisions and the deliberations on them should be open to the public. It’s one way, for example, that we can be sure they’re acting in our best interests and making decisions based on the public good, not their individual gratification.

As members of the press, we have an obligation to challenge violations of the open meetings and freedom of information laws. As members of the public, so do you. Don’t let your elected officials get away with shutting you out of the public business. As exemplified by events in Brasher Falls, the stakes are too high.

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