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Niagara districts flout law on meetings; Closed-door sessions on budgets are illegal

The state budget crisis has forced school districts across New York to have painful discussions about how they can get by with less money.

Several districts in the region -- including Niagara Falls, Niagara Wheatfield and Lockport -- would rather talk behind closed doors.

They don't want the public to hear them hatch their spending plans.

There's one problem with that: It's illegal, according to the executive director of the Committee on Open Government.

"The law gives the public the right to attend meetings [and] listen to the debates and watch the decision-making process in action," said Robert J. Freeman, widely acknowledged as the state's foremost expert on the Open Meetings Law.

That didn't happen in Niagara Falls last week. The School Board decided it preferred to talk privately about cuts the district was considering to bridge an expected budget gap for the 2011-12 school year, cuts that included the layoffs of teachers and permanent substitutes.

When the board said it was going into executive session to talk about "personnel issues," a reporter with The Buffalo News questioned the reasoning.

School Board Attorney Angelo Massaro then advised board members that they could meet privately because the job cuts they were about to discuss would affect specific individuals. He then added "potential litigation" to the reasons the board should shut out the public.

Neither is a valid reason, Freeman said.

"The word 'personnel' does not appear in the law or in the court decisions [as a reason to go into executive session]," he said, "and it should be eliminated from our vocabulary. Discussions about the budget must be done in open meetings."

Potential litigation also is an unacceptable excuse for barring the public from discussions involving a school board or local government body, according to the Open Meetings Law. A lawsuit or notice of claim must first be filed against a school district or municipality, or one of its workers or officials, and the governing board must disclose the name of the person or group that is suing before it may legally go into executive session.

The News reporter asked for a roll-call vote when the Falls School Board moved to go into executive session March 10.

Two board members -- Robert Kazeangin and Carm Rotella -- voted against moving talks behind closed doors. James Cacemi abstained.

Six members voted to go into executive session: Board President Russell Petrozzi and board members Johnny Destino, Kevin Dobbs, Arthur Jocoy Jr., Don King and Nick Vilardo.

It was a decision that contrasted sharply with a meeting of the Newfane School Board on Tuesday night.

About 50 people attended the meeting and heard the board openly discuss the potential elimination of 12 teaching positions and two administrative posts.

Superintendent Christine Tibbetts answered board members' questions about her recommended elimination of the positions of one kindergarten teacher, a fourth-grade teacher, a French language teacher, music teacher, librarian, math teacher, two special education teachers, two administrative positions and other cuts among teachers of technology, business and art.

The budget for the 2011-12 school year "will take a combination of staff cuts, a tax rate increase and the use of our fund balance. Staffing and program cuts will need to be a part of our solution," Tibbetts said.

The Falls School Board is not the only board opting to retreat behind closed doors.

A reporter who showed up several minutes before the advertised start of the Niagara Wheatfield School Board meeting Wednesday night was told that the board had started its meeting in executive session a half-hour early to discuss "personnel" issues and he was turned away.

Superintendent Carl Militello said the committee was discussing personnel cuts related to the 2011-12 budget.

The district announced on its website that its board would meet "to discuss budget issues on Wednesday [and] the meeting will be called to order and immediately adjourned into executive session." The announcement went on to say that the board would meet on the first Wednesday of April for "a budget workshop which is closed to the public."

In Lockport, the School Board also announced in advance of its meeting this week that an "executive session" would be held. Deborah A. Coder, board clerk and assistant superintendent for finance and management services, said later that it was "a special meeting, just a budget work session to do more work on the 2011-12 school budget."

State case law has settled the issue about whether such budget talks may be closed to the public, Freeman said. The answer is no.

Niagara Correspondent Thad Komorowski contributed to this report.

e-mail: rbaldwin@buffnews.com

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