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Board receives bad legal advice regarding public information

The Buffalo school district's new lead attorney, General Counsel Rashondra Martin, made her official debut at Wednesday's special school board meeting, but she already has me worried.

During the meeting, board member Jason McCarthy said he wanted to know if it was true that certain members of the superintendent's Executive Cabinet were given raises. He particularly mentioned the four "chiefs of school leadership" - formerly known as community superintendents - who have direct supervisory responsibilities over the district's school buildings.

As we previously reported in our story on the reorganization, the chief of school leadership positions were considered promotions under Superintendent Pamela Brown's reorganization plan. Each of these positions were assigned more staff, more responsibility and, presumably, more money.

Board member Carl Paladino said it was his understanding that each of the former community superintendents got a $14,000 raise. When McCarthy asked to see these staff members' employment contracts with the district, he was told he couldn't have it, and that the board would have to vote to allow him to receive it.

So McCarthy raised the issue at Wednesday's board meeting. The board sought Martin's opinion. Martin replaces Chris Putrino as general counsel and was formerly associate counsel with Rochester City Schools. She said that while McCarthy would be entitled to know the salaries of these employees, the district could not provide McCarthy or the rest of the board their employment contracts because "it's part of their personnel file."

"That is absolutely wrong," said Robert Freeman, the executive director for the New York State Committee on Open Government. "There is absolutely no doubt that a contract between a public employer and a public employee is public."

As I journalist, I know this to be the case because reporters routinely request and receive contracts between public organizations and their employees or vendors. The News, for instance, has copies of employment contracts between the district and the superintendent.

As taxpayer-funded organizations and taxpayer-funded positions, none of these employment contracts can be barred from any member of the public who requests it.

"The public should not be led to believe that these documents are anything but public," Freeman said when I spoke with him today. "Who is paying these salaries and fringe benefits? We all are. There are numerous judicial decisions indicating that public employees have less privacy than anyone else. Why? Public employees, in short, are required to be more accountable than others. Consequently, there are items, such as those related to their duties, that are clearly available to the public."

We hope this settles the matter and that any employment contracts McCarthy or anyone else wish to see are released. If not, I imagine The News will have more to write about.

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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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