School district officials owe residents genuine access to meetings, decisions - The Buffalo News
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School district officials owe residents genuine access to meetings, decisions

If leaders of the Buffalo School District know how to spell “transparency,” they certainly don’t know how to practice it.

It’s impossible to believe that school leaders really think that they are inviting public access when their actions and attitudes are those of a members-only private club.

Members of the public accurately use such unflattering words as “secretive,” “closed” and “disrespectful” in describing how central administration and School Board members conduct business.

That point was sharply drawn by News education reporter Sandra Tan in a story Wednesday describing the difficulties concerned parents have in being seen and heard on important educational issues.

Most of the Buffalo Public Schools are underperforming and the overall graduation rate is a failure – even at the latest figure of 53 percent, up from 47 percent. The state education commissioner has been extremely vocal in his unhappiness on several fronts involving school district leadership. And a record 2,200 students are looking for transfers out of underperforming schools.

The bunker mentality only makes it easier for the School Board and administration to keep the district on its failing path. Parents and other citizens should be partners in turning around the schools. The roadblocks they face must come down.

Start by making the full board agenda available to the public. Right now it is available only to those with a password. That’s unacceptable. This is the information age, and the board’s agenda should be there for all to read.

The meetings themselves seem designed to discourage attendance. The room is too small and speakers are often inaudible. There is no attempt to make the meeting available to those who can’t get to City Hall, either through live blogging or live streaming the meeting.

As a first step, the district has to get the meetings online, just as new board member James Sampson suggested.

But the board has to do much more to reach out to the public. School Board meetings should be going to where the people are, an idea suggested by Sampson. Board President Barbara Seals Nevergold says she believes the board should be having more frequent community meetings, monthly or bimonthly, and moving them around the district.

The board should be holding its meetings in community centers and school buildings around the district, which will encourage the public to attend. There will always be excuses for why the meetings can’t be moved, such as the difficulty in setting up a room or the expense of keeping a building open late. Those are just excuses; solutions are possible if the board commits to the plan.

The school administration did its part to prevent input from parents by taking the staff directory off its website, making it unnecessarily difficult to contact the right person.

Finally, the board must stop its habit of circumventing the state’s Open Meetings Law by holding small-group meetings before regular board meetings. The public’s business is supposed to be done in public, and those pre-meetings violate that rule.

A gold star to Sampson and Carl Paladino for boycotting those “private” sessions. A “needs improvement” sticker for veteran board member Sharon Belton-Cottman, who contends that secret deliberations are the only way reach decisions. If board members are unable to talk candidly and reach decisions in public, they need to make way for those who can.

Buffalo schools have a multitude of problems, and the solutions will require the support of city residents. Reaching out to the public has to be part of the solution.

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