Discord continues on Hamburg School Board hearing - The Buffalo News
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Discord continues on Hamburg School Board hearing

Disagreement continued Wednesday night on whether the hearing to remove a Hamburg School Board member should be held in secret.

The board member’s attorney filed papers in State Supreme Court seeking to have a judge declare the hearing open to the public, and two School Board members argued in favor of conducting the hearing in public.

But the hearing on official misconduct charges continued in secret for a third evening Wednesday.

Andrew J. Freedman, the attorney for the district, said it will continue to be held behind closed doors in executive session.

“The students and families of this district do not deserve another public spectacle. It’s time for us to move forward and focus on the important work of educating children,” Freedman said.

Board member Sally Stephenson cited an opinion from the state’s highest court that indicated the hearing should be open. She also questioned how long the hearing will last, how much it will cost, and if there a better way to spend the money.

“Does a closed-door meeting send the right message to the community and to the students and to the parents?” she asked.

She said the lawyers have indicated there may be as many as 12 witnesses, but the board has heard from just one witness so far.

“There is another way for this to be completed, and that would be a resignation,” board member Thomas F. Flynn III said. “There’s always two sides.”

Board member Holly Balaya said that was unfair.

“Everyone has the right to refute charges against them,” she said.

Stephenson also said she did not want to “ignore” a Court of Appeals decision that indicates the hearing should be open to the public, and she said the case could cost the district more than $100,000 in attorneys’ fees and other costs. Board President David Yoviene said the cost will not come close to that, and he said Stephenson was attempting to try the case in public.

“I think you’re grandstanding,” he said.

Board members brought charges of official misconduct against Catherine Schrauth Forcucci on April 29, claiming she berated and criticized Hamburg school officials and disrespected the board president, violating board policy and the district’s code of conduct.

Freedman said last week that the hearing is not an executive session and not an open meeting. He said that it is “quasi-judicial” and that the public could be excluded.

Robert J. Freeman, executive director of the state’s Committee on Open Government, disagrees. He said New York’s Court of Appeals issued a ruling in a different case that indicates quasi-judicial hearings should be open to the public.

Freedman, the school attorney, said the hearing conforms with the Open Meetings Law.

“The fact that the quasi-judicial term was used does not undermine the reasoning or the basis for this hearing or the right to hold it private,” Freedman said.

When he was asked if the hearing is a quasi-judicial proceeding, Freedman said, “The primary reason for this hearing is for the removal of the particular individual, which allows for us to hold it in executive session.”

He also cited a different Court of Appeals decision concerning a disciplinary hearing for a dentist where the court concluded there was “no constitutional right of public access to such hearings.” That decision also states that state Education Department disciplinary hearings for professionals are closed unless “the accused professional specifically requested an open hearing.”

The board decided to start the hearings at 6 p.m. after today and added dates on June 13 and 25. The board is scheduled to resume the hearing tonight and Friday night as well as next Wednesday. The hearing has lasted just over 10 hours over three nights, and the board has heard testimony from just one witness, Superintendent Richard Jetter.

email: bobrien@buffnews.com

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