The Liverpool Central School District Board of Education violated the state’s Open Meetings Law when it held a board development program in executive session last week, according to an authority on open government.
The board met Jan. 15 and went directly into executive session for the purposes of board development. This is not one of the circumstances allowed under the state’s Open Meetings Law, though Board President J. Mark Lawson said the board “always goes into executive session” for board development and “did not do anything inappropriate.”
Robert Freeman, head of the state’s Committee on Open Government, disagrees.
“That is not a subject for executive session,” said Freeman, an attorney who has been with the committee since its inception in 1974. “We have these laws for a reason — they’re to protect the public’s right to know. A school board should know that.”
When a board goes into executive session, it moves into private session; the public is not allowed to participate in or listen to these proceedings.
Boards can enter into executive session under the following circumstances:
matters which will imperil the public safety if disclosed;
any matter which may disclose the identity of a law enforcement agency or informer;
information relating to current or future investigation or prosecution of a criminal offense which would imperil effective law enforcement if disclosed;
discussions regarding proposed, pending or current litigation;
collective negotiations pursuant to Article 14 of the Civil Service Law (the Taylor Law);
the medical, financial, credit or employment history of a particular person or corporation, or matters leading to the appointment, employment, promotion, demotion, discipline, suspension, dismissal or removal of a particular person or corporation;
the preparation, grading or administration of examinations; and
the proposed acquisition, sale or lease of real property or the proposed acquisition of securities, or sale or exchange of securities held by such public body, but only when publicity would substantially affect the value thereof.
According to a publication issued jointly by the New York State School Boards Association and the New York State Bar Association entitled “School Law,” school boards can leave open session if entering into a “judicial or quasi-judicial proceeding” or for any matter made confidential under state or federal law. The publication cites discussing a specific student’s disciplinary record or privileged communication between the board and its attorney as potential examples.
Nowhere in the law does it state that board development is allowed to take place in executive session, though Lawson insisted the board’s decision to enter executive session was appropriate.
“I don’t see any other way for us to do an honest and candid self-evaluation,” Lawson said. “No public business was discussed. It’s just a time to reflect on how we work together as a board.”
Lawson said the session was overseen by an outside facilitator, Jessica Cohen, district superintendent for OCM BOCES.
“I can’t imagine that she would participate in something that wasn’t appropriate or was against the law,” he said.
Lawson also said that the commissioner of the state’s education department ruled that board development was a legitimate reason to enter into executive session.
Not so, said a representative from State Ed.
“The commissioner does not rule on [issues involving] the open meetings law,” said Jonathan Burman at the New York State Department of Education. “I’m not sure where [Mr. Lawson] would get that impression. State Ed does not rule on those cases.”
Freeman expressed disappointment in the board’s failure to follow the law.
“School boards and boards in general are supposed to be models for our youth, and they’re supposed to model following the law,” he said. “My guess is that none of them [the board members] read the grounds for executive session in the Open Meetings Law.”
Freeman said boards have to have legitimate grounds to enter into executive session in order for the system to work.
“It’s the Tracy Chapman principle of law — ‘baby, just give me one reason,'” he said. “I don’t think they had one.”
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.