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Buffalo school officials refuse to release public information

Some years ago, I was working on a story that involved gathering municipal payrolls. When I called Toni Cudney, the Orchard Park town supervisor at the time, and told her I wanted the previous year's gross pay for every town employee, she bristled.

Toni Cudney "It's nobody's business how much overtime my employees make," she told me. "That's private."

Well, Cudney had come from a career in the private sector, so maybe her reaction was somewhat understandable -- the fact that everything from overtime to mileage records are open to scrutiny when you're a public employee came as something of a culture shock to her. (Needless to say, after she had been educated a bit, Cudney provided the information I was looking for.)

Over the years, as I've requested various public records from local governments and school districts, I've encountered a handful of responses -- including Cudney's -- so interesting that they stand out in my memory.

But never before has a public official suggested to me that certain information was not public one day, but probably would be a week or so down the road.

That's essentially what Jim Kane, Buffalo Superintendent James A. Williams' chief of staff, told me yesterday when I asked for the names of the people who had submitted resumes to be considered for the East District seat on the Board of Education. He refused to give me the names. Why? Well, the deadline for applications isn't until noon Friday, he said, and besides that, he had not yet shared the names with the board.

James Kane In fact, he wouldn't say for sure when, or if, he would give me the names. This was the closest he came: “I’d rather wait until after noon on the 7th [of January] and after I talk to the board.”

I had already checked with Bob Freeman, executive director of the state's Committee on Open Government, who confirmed that yes, the names of those candidates are public. They became public once they were submitted to the board office. I relayed that information to Kane.

"I'm not sure they are public," Kane said. "I'm doing due diligence. That's what I'm doing."

He wouldn't elaborate what that "due diligence" was, but repeated several times that he was doing it. I pointed out that there's plenty of public information that's released without the board seeing it. There's absolutely nothing in the Freedom of Information Law that says public records can only be made public after they've first been reviewed by a board. Kane didn't care.

For those who do care what the law has to say:

The state's Freedom of Information Law protects the names of applicants for public jobs, but that does not apply in this situation, Freeman said.

"This is not public employment. This is a vacancy in elective office," he said.

And in this case, because candidates must be residents of the East District to be eligible for the seat, their home addresses also are a matter of public record, Freeman said.

Hernandez2 Board President Ralph R. Hernandez said was frustrated by Kane's refusal to release the names, which he said was typical of the administration's tendency toward "secretive" behavior regarding public matters.

"In my opinion, it's a very simple exercise. A board member has resigned. We have the opportunity and the obligation to fill that position. It is our obligation -- the board's -- not the administration's, not Dr. Williams', and not Jim Kane's. It is our job," Hernandez said.

As frustrated as Hernandez was, Kane still withheld the names. In case you haven't already seen the story, I was able to pin down six of the seven candidates' names and talk to most of them.

Looking ahead a bit: The board has about a month to decide who will fill the East District seat. Freeman noted that case law indicates that when it comes time for the board to wrangle over who's the best candidate, those deliberations should be held in public. (Here's the link to an advisory opinion from Freeman explaining that in more detail.)

Stay tuned for more coverage of the board's selection process, as well as additional information about the candidates and the issues that are important to them.

- Mary Pasciak

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About School Zone

Denise Jewell Gee

Denise Jewell Gee

Denise Jewell Gee joined The Buffalo News in 2007 and currently covers education and suburban schools. She also writes a column for the City & Region section and previously covered government in Erie County and Niagara Falls. Gee graduated from Boston University with degrees in journalism and political science.

@denisejewellgee | [email protected]


Tiffany Lankes

Tiffany Lankes

Tiffany Lankes joined The Buffalo News in 2013 and primarily covers the Buffalo Public Schools. She has written about education since 2003 at newspapers in Florida and New York. In 2008, she was a nominated finalist for The Pulitzer Prize. Lankes is an Amherst native and graduate of Sacred Heart Academy and Syracuse University. She started her journalism career writing for the News’ NeXt section.

@TiffanyLankes | [email protected]


Sandra Tan

Sandra Tan

Sandra Tan has been a cityside reporter for The Buffalo News since 2000 and currently covers the Buffalo Public Schools beat. She previously covered the Williamsville school district and was a full-time education reporter for five years prior to joining The News. She graduated from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.

@BNschoolzone | [email protected]


Deidre Williams

Deidre Williams

Deidre Williams began working for The Buffalo News in 1999 and currently covers Buffalo Public Schools. She formerly was a suburban reporter on the Northtowns beat and has been a cityside reporter covering communities since 2004. Williams has a mass communications degree from Towson University.

@DeidreWilliamsB | [email protected]

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