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Did the board ignore the law?

Posted by keshiaclukey on May 9, 2013 at 7:30 PM

Did the board ignore the law?

* Expert: Budget talks must be public * Board: Staff discussions can be private


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UTICA - School boards legally can meet in private for several reasons, including matters of security, contract agreements or to discuss pending litigation.

One thing they can't talk about in executive session: The budget.

Yet that's what some members of the Utica City School District Board of Education say happened Tuesday.

During an executive session, the superintendent and board discussed returning the positions of treasurer and internal auditor to full-time in the 2013-14 budget after an earlier proposal had cut them to part-time.

In exchange, one full-time English as a Second Language teacher position and a part-time Spanish teacher would be eliminated.

Robert Freeman, director of the state's Committee on Open Government, said the private budget discussions violated state Open Meetings Law. What the district wants to do with your money is supposed to be discussed in public, not behind closed doors.

"There is no basis for going into executive session, because they're talking about how as the government body, they're allocating public money," he said.

The superintendent, the district's attorney and all seven board members argued that a personnel issue is a valid reason to meet in private.

Board member Evon Ervin said the changes were discussed in private out of consideration for those holding the positions.

"If there's going to be any cuts, we don't want that person to find out in a meeting. With budgets you never know what's going to change," Ervin said. "Once we hash out everything, we usually do say what we're cutting … That's about as public as people need to know."

But Freeman said "personnel" is not a reason to go into executive session and all budget talks must be public.

"The word personnel doesn't exist anywhere in the law," he said. "It's a trap, a catch-all."

Reasons for going into executive session regarding an individual or company include: discussing medical, financial, credit or employment history, or matters leading to the appointment, employment, promotion, demotion, discipline, suspension, dismissal or removal of a particular person or corporation, according to state law.

The revised budget then was approved 6-1 during the public portion of the meeting along with an about $138 million budget, which includes a 2 percent tax increase and the elimination of about 98.5 positions, 63.5 of which are teachers. About 10 of the positions were eliminated through attrition.

Board Vice President Louis LaPolla was the sole vote against the budget due to the last-minute changes. He said he felt the board should have voted on the superintendent's original spending plan, and any changes then could have been revealed to the public and voted on separately.

"I'm in favor of restoring all teaching positions before I restore one non-teaching position," LaPolla said.

When LaPolla attempted to voice his concerns during the open meeting, he was discouraged by other board members.

"I was never going to reveal the positions or the personnel," he said. "They stopped me; that's when I said, well look, if I can't talk I'm going to vote against the budget anyway."

Goodwin said LaPolla wasn't discouraged, he was "forbidden."

"It had been decided that anything to do with laying off or talking about personnel changes would not be discussed at the open meeting until we have the budget meeting," he said, referring to a meeting planned for Tuesday where the board is expected to release the exact cuts.

There is no law stating that LaPolla could not discuss what happened in executive session, Freeman said.

Superintendent Bruce Karam said personnel matters were discussed in executive session and referred further comment to the district's attorney.

Attorney Donald Gerace, who represents the district, said the executive session was proper.

"Traditionally they won't talk about those kinds of cuts until the action is actually before them," he said. "We normally do not discuss personnel actions on the floor if they're just proposed."

Open Meetings Law

A majority vote of the board in an open meeting may elect to conduct an executive session for the following purposes only:

Matters that will imperil public safety if disclosed;

Any matter that may disclose the identity of a law enforcement agent or informer;

Information relating to current or future investigation or prosecution of a criminal offense that would imperil effective law enforcement if disclosed;

Discussions regarding proposed, pending or current litigation;

Collective negotiations pursuant to article 14 or civil service law;

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;

The proposed acquisition, sale or lease of real property or the proposed acquisition of securities, or sale or exchange of securities held by such public body, but only when publicity would substantially affect the value thereof.

No formal vote shall take place during executive session to appropriate public moneys.

For full law visit

Board Comments

Superintendent Bruce Karam: “I had a certain level of expenditures and then coordinating cuts to the budget in order to balance the budget,” he said about the recommended budget changes. He said he couldn’t discuss executive session and referred comment to the district’s attorney.

Board President Christopher Salatino: “There was nothing talked about relating to the budget. The only thing relating to the budget was a personnel issue. I’m a very large proponent of open meetings,” he said about the executive session. “We certainly don’t want to put an employee in the position where they read in the paper and say ‘that’s my job.’” The issue shouldn’t have been discussed during the public portion of the meeting. “Because the positions themselves are a personnel issue, it’s contractual.”

Board Vice President Louis LaPolla: He said he was following the advice of the district’s attorney that talking about personnel is allowed in executive session. “Any changes and amendments certainly should have been relayed to the public,” he said.

Board Member Margaret Buckley: “I disagree with Bob (Freeman, director of the state's Committee on Open Government),” she said. “I think when you’re dealing with individuals and people in a job and it’s only one person. I just don’t think you can do that,” she said about discussing the position changes in public.

Board Member Donald Dawes: “I believe that we were well within the law in the way we did things,” he said. “Until we vote on something we normally don’t release the names of people that we’re discussing. It could have legal ramifications depending on what the situation was. Also, sometimes in your mind you assume people know things and you don’t actually say them,” he said about not discussing the changes at the meeting. “Sometimes we have a tendency to do that when we get into things like the budget.”

Board Member Evon Ervin: “I just think it’s common courtesy to let staff know before everyone else knows,” she said about discussing the position cuts in private. “We just want to look out for the staff. We’re not hiding anything, we’re trying to stick as close to the law as possible.”

Board Member Barry Goodwin: “I don’t recall anything being discussed regarding the budget,” he said about executive session; however, the board is given budget packets at every meeting. “Anything that’s on paper, until it’s entered into record, doesn’t really exist as far as the budget is concerned,” he said. “Each of us have the law and we know what we can and cannot discuss.”

Michele Mandia: Declined to comment.

Proposed CUTS

Position: Number of reductions

Director of district operations: 1

Committee on special education chairperson: 1

Teacher of the visually impaired: 1

Elementary teachers: 24

Academic intervention services teachers: 5

English language arts teachers: 8

Math teachers: 7

Art teachers: 3

Music teachers: 2

Reading teachers: 3

English as a second language teachers: 3

Special education teachers: 7

Spanish teacher: 0.5

ESL facilitator: 1

Math facilitator: 1

Purchasing agent business office: 1

Senior steno management confidential: 1


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