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Why all the secrets?

When the Board of Ed videoconferenced Tuesday with State Ed regarding the school turnaround plans that Buffalo district officials submitted, state officials didn't take too kindly to the fact that there were reporters in the room. Superintendent James Williams on Friday had invited me to sit in on the meeting, and two TV reporters had showed up for the powwow, too.

It was really something to see the lengths that the board had to go to in order to keep that meeting closed to the public.

You see, any time a quorum of the board gathers to discuss district business, the meeting has to be open to the public. When board President Ralph Hernandez announced that the media would have to leave, I pointed out that there were five board members in the room (out of nine seats on the board, making that a quorum), so therefore, the meeting could not legally be closed.

At that point, board members Rosalyn Taylor and Florence Johnson volunteered to leave the boardroom, therefore lowering the number of board members in the room and making it possible for the meeting to proceed legally behind closed doors.

After less than an hour, board member John Licata had to leave the meeting. When he left, Taylor went in. Later, when Hernandez left, Johnson went in. And so on. The end result: At any given point, there were not more than four board members in the meeting.

Board members grumbled that it was ridiculous they should have to do that. And the bottom line is, most board members did not get to sit through the entire videoconference, specifically because they had to play musical chairs to avoid breaking the law. So most board members walked out of City Hall on Tuesday lacking an understanding of the full conversation with State Ed.

Keep in mind that the board voted to adopt a turnaround model for seven schools in which an outside group comes in and basically takes the place of the superintendent for those schools. The board retains its authority over them, though.

So the board bears responsibility for those seven schools, but very few board members got to participate in the full two-hour discussion with State Ed regarding the plans for those schools. Does that seem like a good setup?

Hmm...

Well, let's take a step back here.

Is it standard for such sessions to be open to the media? No.

Is there any legal reason such sessions couldn't be open to the media? No. There's nothing in state law that expressly prohibits officials from opening such sessions to the public.

After the closed-door videoconference ended on Tuesday, I talked to several people who had participated in it. The consensus was that there was basically s a lot of back and forth regarding how this turnaround model is going to play out. In other words, had I been allowed to sit in on it, the public would have ended up with a much better understanding of the details on how this is all supposed to unfold.

But closing the doors on Tuesday's session was just one in a string of events that has kept the public less informed than it could be.

Both State Ed and the district refuse to release the litany of questions State Ed provided to the district regarding its turnaround plans.

The superintendent refuses to release the list of entities that submitted proposals to take over the low-performing schools.

And all to what end?

If there's nothing wrong with the way the process is unfolding, then why should either the district or State Ed go out of its way to keep things out of the public eye?

Since I started live blogging the Board of Ed meetings and committee meetings, thousands of people join me every week for a blow by blow of what's going on in Room 801 of City Hall. Not only are people interested in what's going on in the Buffalo Public Schools, but they're willing to commit the time to follow along at a very granular level.

So the interest is definitely there.

The first step toward having an engaged citizenry is having an informed citizenry.

So why not provide people with more information, rather than less?

- 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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