School Board Continues to Discuss Alleged Lack of Transparency

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

By Christine Sampson

During Monday’s Sag Harbor School Board meeting, board president Diana Kolhoff read a statement indicating the board would stand by its August 28 decision to appoint three employees to new administrative jobs and create an additional new position, but the message came with an acknowledgment that she thought the board did not give the community much time to consider the motions at hand.

“I know we can’t please all the people all the time … but the board understands that the community appreciates time to digest information prior to a vote, and moving forward, when the superintendent and I are creating the agenda, we will make a conscious effort to do so whenever possible,” she said.

Similarly, superintendent Katy Graves said Monday that where the district may have “faltered” on August 28 was “time for reflection” on the motions at hand.

“Where we missed our mark was presentation, and we didn’t give our community and some of our board members time for reflection,” she said, noting the board’s every-other-week meeting schedule allows for presentations to be made at one meeting, then actions to be taken two weeks later.

“If we feel like there’s not enough time, the will of the board can still table that action,” Ms. Graves said.

Their comments came in response to criticism from community members, including former school board members Sandi Kruel and Susan Kinsella, that the district moved too quickly and without enough financial discussion or general openness in making several job appointments on August 28.

Board member Susan Lamontagne, who was not at the August 28 meeting, spoke up to question the appointments that had been made, largely on the basis of fiscal responsibility.

“I understand our enrollment this year is up, but I see long term projections that it’s supposed to go down,” she said Monday. “Are we adding positions when it’s much easier to add them than it is to take them away? Are we asking those questions well enough? There was a cost savings that was presented. Did we vet it enough in terms of what other needs there were? I don’t recall if there was a discussion of whether it should go back to the taxpayers.”

Ms. Kolhoff’s statement prompted board member Chris Tice to respond by saying “now, more than ever, transparency is critically needed.” Ms. Tice suggested that Ms. Graves had improperly “approached an external candidate” about the newly created “school maintenance crew leader” position before it was discussed in executive session on August 14 and formally established by board vote on August 28. She also said the redefinition of the position of athletic director “was not fully vetted” publicly prior to the board vote.

On Tuesday, Ms. Kolhoff said Ms. Tice’s comments violated executive session confidentiality rules.

“I am surprised and disappointed that Chris Tice was so willing to breach the confidentiality of executive session considering she wanted to launch an investigation for an alleged leak last year,” Ms. Kolhoff said. “That being said, if the superintendent had informed highly qualified individuals about potential employment opportunities, I don’t find that type of professional networking to be inappropriate. She is searching for the best candidates for the position for the benefit of the district. There was never any guarantee of employment.”

On Wednesday, Ms. Tice disagreed with the suggestion that she broke the rules.

“I confirmed with the school district’s attorney that it is not violating executive session to discuss process which is what I addressed,” she said. “In fact, a process should always be discussed in public and transparent to the board and the community.”

Ms. Graves clarified her actions on Wednesday. “I absolutely informed the board that I knew of at least one candidate that would consider the position,” she said. “I’m always networking, and when I was making the recommendation to the board for separating those two positions, I did let them know that there are potential candidates out there. … We have a committee that will interview and put forth a recommendation to the board. It’s always the board’s decision ultimately. No decision has been made.”

New York State’s Open Meetings Law does not explicitly prohibit the discussion of school board executive session proceedings, unless they pertain specifically to student privacy, contract negotiations, litigation or real estate acquisitions.

In an April 2002 opinion, Robert Freeman, executive director of the state’s Committee on Open Government, said, “In my view, one of the responsibilities of elected officials involves speaking out on issues of concern to the public. … In my opinion, in the context of school district business, matters would be ‘confidential’ only on rare occasions. … In most instances, however, there would be no prohibition against disclosure based on a statute that forbids release of records or their contents. … Lastly, while there may be no prohibition against disclosure of most of the information discussed in an executive session, to reiterate a point offered in other opinions rendered by this office, the foregoing is not intended to suggest that such disclosures would be uniformly appropriate or ethical.”