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Violation of Open Meetings Law debated (but they're still wrong)

When The Buffalo News prepared to publish a short story Monday night indicating that the Buffalo School Board apparently violated the state's Open Meetings Law by holding a two-hour board budget meeting without informing the public, the district pushed back.

As we noted in our brief story, board members came together to both receive information about the 2014-15 budget and to ask for board feedback on a variety of budget issues, including prospective cuts to personnel and district services. We described the meeting as an "informal work session." Based on board member descriptions, it actually sounded a lot like a public Finance and Operations Committee meeting. 

But spokeswoman Elena Cala and board president Barbara Nevergold described the meeting, which six of nine board members attended, as an "informational workshop" that was meant to convey information, not conduct official business. Subsequently, Cala sent News education reporters an email today in which she referenced a written advisory opinion by Robert Freeman, head of the NYS Committee on Open Government.

That letter, written by Freeman in 1993 in response to a question about an annual "Education Day" hosted by the State Board of Nursing, stated in part: If there is an intent that a majority of a public body convene for the purpose of conducting public business, such a gathering would, in my opinion, constitute a meeting subject to the requirements of the Open Meetings Law. However, if there is no intent that a majority of public body will gather for purpose of conducting public business, collectively, as a body, but rather for the purpose of gaining education and training, I do not believe that the Open Meetings Law would be applicable.

So I called Freeman and asked for clarification. Here's what he told me this afternoon about Monday morning's meeting:

"This is clearly part of a deliberative process, as opposed to a program during which board members from a variety of locations are present to become educated, not with respect to issues particular to their districts, but rather for the purposes of receiving general knowledge.

"In contrast, the situation that you described clearly involves a deliberative process focusing upon issues that are particular to this Board of Education. I believe that the board’s position reflect a misinterpretation of an opinion involving gatherings that are clearly different."

His bottom line: "In this case, we’re talking about money, and money that affects children directly. What could be more significant to the public than a meeting of this nature?"

It appears some district leaders miss the old days when board members deliberately met in small groups of four members or fewer to deliberately circumvent the Open Meetings Law. Their lawyer informed them those meetings were illegal. So was Monday's, according to Freeman.

"In my opinion it is clear that the gathering is fully subject to the Open Meetings Law and that notice of the time and place was required," he said. "It is easy to comply with the notice provisions in the Open Meetings Law. The news media must be notified, perhaps by phone, by email, by fax. Notice must be posted in its usual location, and whenever possible, notice must be given online."

-- Sandra Tan

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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 |

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 |

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 |

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 |