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Agency questions early start time of school boards' work sessions

In Orchard Park, it will still be dark out this morning when the School Board sits down over coffee and doughnuts at 7 a.m. to hash out projected revenues for next year's budget.

The sun will have risen -- barely -- an hour later, by the time Sweet Home School Board members look at their district's budget.

Officials in both districts say the timing allows them to get work done and still have the day to spend with their families. But New York's leading authority on open government says it sounds like a case of school boards dodging their obligation under government sunshine laws.

"It seems to me 7 a.m. is an unusual time for a meeting of a government body, and that many who might otherwise attend would have difficulty being at a meeting that starts so early," Robert J. Freeman, executive director of the state's Committee on Open Government, said of Orchard Park's meeting.

"If that is so, case law indicates that a court would find that a meeting scheduled at that time would be unreasonable and fail to comply with the open meetings law."

Sweet Home's 8 a.m. starting time is better, Freeman said, but "I don't know that it's optimal."

School districts often hold budget work sessions in addition to their regular school board meetings. The meetings are open to the public, but there is generally no opportunity given for questions or suggestions from residents. Districts are required by law to hold public hearings on their budget proposals before the public votes on them in May.

Today will be Orchard Park's second consecutive 7 a.m. Saturday budget work session. Last week's meeting drew only two spectators -- Robert Farwell, the high school principal, and Jim Higgins, the middle school principal.

Board President William Thiel said he decided to schedule the meetings as a matter of convenience for officials.

"Administrators and board members need to have some time with their families, and so that's why it's at 7 in the morning," he said. "Hopefully, we're out of here by 9 or 10 and back where we're supposed to be -- at home."

Orchard Park got the idea for Saturday budget sessions from Sweet Home, which has been holding them for about a decade. Public attendance at the weekend meetings is sparse, Sweet Home School Board President Michael Morrow said, but there's not much interest in the board's regular Tuesday night meetings, either.

The budget sessions were moved to Saturdays a decade ago at the request of the local taxpayer group, Morrow said.

"They thought more of their members could come to more of the budget meetings if they were on a Saturday," he said. "They said Saturday was better for them because everybody's schedule is so hectic on a weekday."

In the nine years he's been on the board, nobody has complained about the Saturday sessions, Morrow said. But is 8 a.m. a reasonable time to start the meetings?

"I think it is, if people get enough advance notice, and we provide that," said Sweet Home Superintendent Geoffrey M. Hicks. "We're not trying to be clandestine about it at all. It just happens to work. When you have to spend three hours talking about the budget, it's easier to do on a Saturday than on a Tuesday night."

Two other districts, Lancaster and Williamsville, hold their budget "work sessions" after they adjourn their regular meetings on weekday nights. Both make them open to the public -- but it's likely to be 10 p.m. or later by the time the budget work begins, and it's rare that anyone sticks around for it.

Freeman says the boards ought to simply include their budget discussions as part of their regular meetings.

"There's no distinction between a work session and a meeting. A meeting is a meeting is a meeting," he said. "Sometimes the phrase 'work session' is used to suggest to people that nothing's going to happen. But the work session is often more important than the formal meeting."


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