Sag Harbor School District Denies Freedom of Information Requests

Pierson Middle-High School in the spring of 2017. Christine Sampson photo

The Sag Harbor School District has denied two requests for documents made via the New York State Freedom of Information Law, a denial that the state’s Committee on Open Government executive director said may be improper, but which the school district has defended.

The Sag Harbor Express as well as a resident and former school board member, Mary Anne Miller, separately sought copies of a letter from the school district’s auditing firm, Cullen and Danowski, that had accompanied the firm’s analysis of the district’s business and financial practices earlier this month.

The Sag Harbor School Board on November 13 voted only to accept the audit, not the accompanying “management letter,” a document in which suggestions are made for how the district can improve what the auditors consider weaknesses. Sag Harbor district clerk Victoria Handy said the two Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests were denied because “the letter requested has not been filed with the comptroller yet. Once the management letter is filed, it will then be subject to disclosure.”

The Committee on Open Government has weighed in twice on this specific issue. In a November 1997 opinion addressed to the Wynantskill School District, Robert J. Freeman, the committee’s executive director, cited subdivision 2(a) of Section 35 of state municipal law, which he said indicates “it is clear that a management letter must be made available to the public.”

“It’s public, period. They don’t have to approve the audit,” Mr. Freeman said in an interview Tuesday. He also said “it doesn’t matter” if the board has not “accepted” the management letter.

“It is a record as defined by FOIL,” he said. “In my opinion, there is no basis for a denial of access, particularly in consideration of the clear direction provided in the general municipal law.”

Sag Harbor school attorney Michael Vigliotta, however, said in a statement on behalf of the school district that the management letter is still a draft that has not yet been filed with the state comptroller’s office, and is therefore not subject to FOIL provisions because of its status and timing.

“In this circumstance, if the management letter has not yet been filed with the comptroller and the board president, the condition precedent which makes the document subject to disclosure has not yet been fulfilled,” Mr. Vigliotta said. He also said it is “not clear to me whether the Committee on Open Government appreciates the nuisances in this circumstance.”

In a school board meeting earlier this month, board members said they postponed accepting the audit and management letter because Superintendent Katy Graves had not had the chance to review them due to a health-related absence. In a subsequent special meeting, Ms. Graves had recommended the board still not accept the management letter because she felt there were changes that needed to be made reflecting progress the district had already made toward some of the items in the management letter.

Ms. Miller said she became very concerned when the school board did not accept the management letter and denied both her request and her appeal. She called it “a report on taxpayer dollars and on our public school’s financial status” and said the denial of the document effectively erodes trust and causes unnecessary criticism. She said there is nothing in New York State’s laws that prevents the district from releasing the letter.

“There must be some information in the letter that district leadership is looking to whitewash,” Ms. Miller suggested in an email to The Express. “…A public entity only loses support when information — good or bad — is not openly shared with the public in a timely fashion and without edits.”

She said she would continue to discuss the issue with the Committee on Open Government.

“Delays and revised management letters are all red flags, as far as accountability and transparency are concerned,” Ms. Miller said. “… rather, they are choosing to hide behind some legal opinions, as they draft a new version which they must view to be more palatable.”