Informally, beyond the glare of television lights and sometimes over dinner, Buffalo Board of Education members work at being more cooperative, more efficient and less antagonistic.
Instead of charter schools, high-stakes testing or student violence, they talk about setting goals and getting more comfortable as a group.
The private "board retreat," launched five years ago during the controversy over former Superintendent James Harris, has become an established part of the school district's culture.
Away from City Hall, and sometimes in hotel conference rooms, the nine board members regularly meet with facilitators to get to know and understand each other better.
"It's about team-building," said Denise Hanlon, a board vice president who coordinates the retreats. "It gives board members an opportunity to express things that need to be addressed and work on resolving issues that need to be resolved."
The Buffalo board is not alone, as retreats -- long popular in private industry -- have become far more common in public school districts.
"Maybe a third or more of the school boards statewide do a retreat every year or two," said David Ernst, a spokesman for the New York School Boards Association. "It's something we encourage."
Private retreats are allowed by the state's Open Government Laws as long as they do not deal with policy or governance issues.
The Buffalo board stepped far beyond those legal limits in October, when details of the district's superintendent search were hammered out at a board retreat that was closed to the public and the media.
In addition, Kenneth A. Rogers, a facilitator hired by the board to handle retreats, ran large portions of a September board committee meeting dealing with charter school applications. Although there was nothing illegal about that, it was the first time in memory that a board committee meeting was presided over by someone other than an elected official.
Board officials insist the private discussion of the superintendent search was an inadvertent error, and that the board is diligent about staying within the limits of the Open Governments Laws.
"They (retreats) are about how we deal with one another and how we can do better," said Jack Coyle, the board's immediate past president. "At some of the better ones, people open up and express what they feel. You get a better read on people."
But Catherine Collins, an at-large board member who took office in July, said the retreat agendas seem to be set by Board President Florence D. Johnson, Hanlon and Rogers, "assuming they know exactly what we need to know."
Collins also feels that too much emphasis can be placed on consensus and conformity.
"You can't force me into: 'I like your position,' " she said. "And you can't micromanage my position by giving me pieces of information to put me where you want me to be, or where you think I should be."
East District board member Vivian Evans feels greater emphasis should be placed on more concrete issues -- such as parliamentary procedure, committee responsibilities and district operations -- rather than interpersonal relations.
"I'm not really feeling this mode about trust," she said. "It's about professionalism. You have a job to do and you just do it."
Rogers, charging up to $160 an hour, was paid $12,383 for board retreats and planning and consulting sessions between Aug. 9, 2001, and Dec. 8, 2003, according to district records. At least two other consultants are or have been employed by the board since 1999, board members said.
The board is seeking a $20,000 grant from the Tower Foundation for four more retreats between now and July 30, Hanlon said.
Board retreats began in 1999, when the board was embroiled in controversy over James Harris, who ultimately accepted a buyout and resigned as superintendent, said Donald Van Every, a former board member.
"I think the idea of getting people comfortable with each other was very good," Van Every said. "I think it worked superbly and helped us as a group."