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School Board holds closed talks in Lockport; Meets on personnel but gives no specifics

The Lockport School Board met privately for a little more than an hour Wednesday in an "executive session" that was closed to the public.

Later, it held an open meeting that included resolutions to borrow about $24.8 million for capital improvements to school buildings, grounds and athletic facilities.

The resolutions on borrowing will be submitted to school district voters in a referendum at this spring's regular School Board election.

The agenda prepared in advance for Wednesday's meeting included an item listed as "Executive Session for Personnel Matters of a Confidential Nature."

Before the vote was taken to convene in an executive session, board member Diane Phelps asked President John Linderman what specific personnel issue would be discussed and whether there would be any discussion on the preparation of a proposed budget for the 2011-2012 school year.

Phelps said she was told "you will be informed of that when we get into the meeting and then I voted 'no' on going into executive session." The other seven members present voted in favor of holding the closed meeting. Thomas Fiegle was absent.

Robert J. Freeman, executive director of the state's Committee on Open Government, has said that it is a violation of the Open Meetings Law for a public body to convene in private to discuss a vague "personnel" matter or to discuss a budget.

He said a personnel discussion must be described more completely as a matter affecting "a particular person" before it can be properly discussed behind closed doors. "The word 'personnel' does not appear in the law nor in the court decisions on the subject," Freeman said. " 'Personnel' should be removed from our vocabulary."

Freeman added that public budgetary matters almost never are proper matters to be discussed in private. He is widely considered to be the state's leading expert on the Open Meetings Law.

The subject matter of the private meeting was not disclosed during the ensuing public meeting.

However, a district resident, Patti Starr, told the board she was "very concerned about the lack of openness at executive sessions." She said, "Please give us information."

Beverly McDonough, who served a five-year term as a School Board member from 2001 to 2006, said she, too, was concerned about the possible overuse of executive sessions, but she did not publicly address the board on that issue.

During the open meeting, School Superintendent Terry Ann Carbone recommended some fine-tuning of the budget that she said would result in a 6.84 percent increase in the school district's local property tax levy.

"Nobody wants to increase taxes," she said, but she saw no practical way to avoid doing so.

The total recommended budget figure and the projected tax rate were not discussed during the public meeting, attended by an estimated 200 people in Charles Upson Elementary School.

In other public business, the board voted to submit two bond resolutions to referendum. One resolution would permit the district to borrow more than $18.9 million for improvements to various school buildings and grounds. The other would permit borrowing nearly $5.9 million to improve athletic facilities at Lockport High School.

e-mail: rbaldwin@buffnews.com

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