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Board skirts Open Meetings Law

I'm here at the board office, where four board members and the superintendent are on the phone with State Ed, getting some answers to questions they have about the distinguished educator the state has appointed to the Buffalo Public Schools.

One of those board members, Ralph Hernandez, mentioned the call to me yesterday. I asked if I could sit in on the call, seeing as I'm working on a story about the distinguished educator. Sure, he said. It wouldn't be a board meeting -- only four board members would be here -- he said, but yes, I could sit in on the call.

Door to boardroomWell, shortly after I arrived in the waiting room outside the board room today, Board President Mary Ruth Kapsiak arrived. I mentioned to her that Hernandez said I could sit in on the call.

"No you can't," she told me. "It's not a board meeting. I was told the full board couldn't even be here."

Hernandez went down to the legal department, came back up and told me there wouldn't be a problem, and that he would open the door to the board room for me.

"It's not an executive session. We can't not let you in," he said.

Well, in the meantime, board members Rosalyn Taylor and Florence Johnson arrived, along with the superintendent. Assistant legal counsel Nate Kuzma popped back into the board room for a few minutes, too.

And the door has remained closed and locked for the hour or so that I've been here.

It's no coincidence that only four out of the nine board members are behind that door. They are apparently acquainted with the state's Open Meetings Law at least well enough to know how to skirt it. Whenever a majority of the board (in this case, five or more board members) get together to talk about board business, that's considered a board meeting, and it has to be open to the public.

I have no doubt that Kapsiak was right -- someone told her that the full board could not assemble here today. If they did, they would have to let me in.

It's by design that no more than four board members are in that room.

This is an old trick that this board and plenty of others use. It enables them to keep even more of the public's business out of the public's eye.

The question is: Why?

The subject of today's little meeting is the distinguished educator -- the woman the state has appointed and whom the board now has to reach a contract with.

The distinguished educator is not only a bone of contention among board members -- it's quite a topic of interest among the public, judging from the comments, emails and Facebook messages I've received about it. People want to know exactly how this person is supposed to help turn the schools around. They have plenty of questions, and rightfully so.

Today was the perfect opportunity to get those answers. (State Ed thus far has not even responded to my request for a copy of Judy Elliott's resume. So if you think it's easy to get answers to basic questions, you might want to think again.)

I have no idea why the board isn't interested in sharing the state's factual responses with the public. I would think the board would want an informed and engaged public.

What is it, exactly, that the board was so determined to keep secret today?

Well, here's a list of the questions the board sent to State Ed:

BPS Questions Re Distinguished Educator

 

- Mary Pasciak

facebook.com/mary.pasciak     twitter.com/MaryPasciak    [email protected]

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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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