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Meetings must be open; School boards break the law when discussing budget problems in secret

Local school boards that have closed their doors to the public when making difficult budgetary decisions should offer every taxpayer a written apology.

Talks about how to find ways to do more with less should be held in the open. In fact, they must be: It's the law. Why is this so difficult to understand?

News Niagara reporter Richard E. Baldwin, along with contributing writer Thad Komorowski, recently brought to light several districts in the region, including Niagara Falls, Niagara Wheatfield and Lockport, that have been holding budgetary conversations behind closed doors.

Not Newfane. There, the School Board recently conducted a meeting with about 50 people to openly discuss the potential elimination of 12 teaching positions and two administrative posts. Some of their peers haven't learned an important lesson on transparency.

Whether they know it or not -- and we believe that elected public officials should -- they are flaunting the state's Open Meetings Law.

The Niagara Wheatfield District even announced on its website that its board would meet to discuss budget issues and, after the meeting was called to order, would immediately adjourn into executive session.

And to add insult to public injury, 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."

Lockport also announced its closed-door budgetary discussion plan in advance of its board meeting.

Apparently, some school boards just don't feel obligated to the public at all. Consider Niagara Falls. There, where the subject was going to be bridging an expected budget gap for the 2011-12 school year, including layoffs of teachers and permanent substitutes, they invented an excuse.

Specifically, School Board Attorney Angelo Massaro told board members they could meet privately because the job cuts would affect specific individuals, and then proceeded to add "potential litigation" as a reason.

Wrong, on both counts, according to New York Open Meetings Law expert Robert J. Freeman.

Still, the School Board attorney's advice didn't keep members from being exposed to the public, as a News reporter asked for a roll-call vote when members moved to go into executive session on 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.

Those six, along with the other School Board members in the region who have conducted closed-door budgetary discussions, should explain to voters why they need to talk privately about taxpayer dollars. More than that, they need to understand that what they did is illegal. Period.

Taxpayers should be sure to attend future meetings and demand their fundamental right to public discussion of public issues.

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