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District to News: You can have that info -- but only on our terms

Superintendent James A. Williams doesn't seem to care much about following the rules.

Maybe that's cool when you're 15 years old, but when you're a grown man in charge of a $945 million budget and 35,000 students -- well, not so much.

Remember when Williams refused to move three principals -- and in the process, jeopardized $42 million for the district?

James Williams More recently, we had a story about the fact that he's been letting administrators collect private stipends for doing work on the Leadership Academy on district time.

And today's story has Williams and his administration thumbing their noses at a state law that guarantees the public -- you, in other words -- access to information.

First, a little background. You might remember the story I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the fact that Williams has more than doubled the number of non-union City Hall administrators. Last week, I submitted a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request, asking for a copy of those administrators' resumes. The public has a right to know whether those people are qualified for the jobs they were appointed to.

You'd think that if they are, in fact, qualified for those jobs, Williams would be in a hurry to prove that.

So I thought it might be a good sign when, the day after I filed that FOIL request, I got a phone call from Elena Cala, the district's public relations person. She wanted me to come down to City Hall at 2:15 p.m. that day. She said she was arranging for me to meet with all 28 of those exempt administrators, in small groups. They would each have their resume in hand, and I could ask anything I wanted, she said.

Sound like a good deal?

Like I said, I was initially encouraged. Generally, when I file a FOIL request with the district, they tell me I'm going to have to wait a month to get the information I asked for. So this seemed like tremendous progress.

Williams and Cala Williams actually wanted me to have the information promptly, I thought.

Well, I told Cala that I appreciated the offer to rush down to City Hall, but I was tied up working on two other stories that were demanding all my time the rest of the week.

Besides that, it did not make any sense to hand me 28 resumes on the spot and expect me to come up with questions instantly. The whole point is that I need a decent amount of time to go through each resume line by line, do a bunch of research, and figure out where each person's resume does not seem to match their job requirements.

That's impossible to do on the spot.

I told Cala I would be happy to meet with the administrators, but on Monday, and after the district sent me the resumes on Thursday or Friday. That would give me time to do the research necessary.

She told me she would try to arrange that and call me back.

You know the rest of the story. The district is willing to give the resumes only if I agree to be given those resumes on the spot, in group interviews with the administrators.

As far as the district is concerned, that's a good deal.

Brendan Kelleher, the district's attorney, wrote in an e-mail to me: "The district offered the News the opportunity to meet with exempt employees to discuss their qualifications and resumes, but the News declined that opportunity. In light of the News' desire not to meet with the employees and receive their resumes, the district will respond to the News' most recent request for the employees' resumes in accordance with the law."

The district is framing this as though I'm refusing to meet with administrators. I'm not.

I would love to meet with the administrators -- after I have time to review the resumes and do adequate research.

But it seems as though Williams has an aversion to letting people adequately prepare for meetings.

I've been told by board members that the superintendent has a tendency to drop information in their laps on a Wednesday night, then expect them to make a decision on it on the spot.

That makes it pretty hard to make informed decisions, don't you think?

Now, back to this matter of my FOIL request.

The district is legally required to provide me with the requested information within five business days, unless for some reason they need more time to prepare the information. In this case, we know for a fact that the information is ready.

In other words, the district is willfully violating the law.

And about this business of the district trying to dictate the terms of the release of the resumes?

The state law does not allow the district to attach strings to the release of information. Saying I can have the information, but only if I agree to the district's terms, is simply not within the bounds of the law.

There's plenty more to be said about the many ways Williams and his administration have withheld information and tried to control how I do my job, but that will have to wait for another day.

In the meantime, for those of you who are still hungry for more, here's my entire e-mail exchange with Cala, verbatim. (I took the liberty of bolding the most salient points.)

11:46 a.m. Thursday:

Hi Elena,

Thanks for touching base yesterday.

Will you be faxing or e-mailing those resumes over later today, then?

- Mary

12:29 p.m. Thursday:

Mary,

On Monday you can start with your preliminary questions, and you can always check back when you study up on the resumes which we will give you that day.

E

12:32 p.m. Thursday:

Can you please clarify: When are you wanting me to come on Monday to get the resumes?

- Mary

12:39 p.m. Thursday:

You were invited to come and interview exempt employees on Monday (time still to be negotiated) and to collect their resumes.  Dr. Oladele's office will set up the time. 

I believe the idea is to have you come to a few round-table meetings with the exempts.  Of course, you will still get your FOIL request in the end, but we thought we could help you out before that by having these meetings and handing you our resumes.

Let me know if you're interested.

1 p.m. Thursday:

Elena,

When you and I spoke yesterday, what we agreed on was that the resumes I FOILed for would be provided to me today or tomorrow, so that I would have the weekend to review them. And then I would come in on Monday with appropriate questions prepared.

It is going to take me a significant amount of time to read through all 28 resumes and do the appropriate research to determine what I need to ask of whom. I’m sure you understand that.

If you would like me to come in person to pick up the resumes, I would be happy to do that. Based on our conversation yesterday, I understand that those resumes are ready, as you asked me to come in yesterday to get them.

Please let me know when I can pick them up and from which office.

Thank you.

- Mary

1:17 p.m. Thursday:

Mary,

You must have misunderstood. I did not say you could come and get the resumes; I said Dr. Oladele would pull together a group of people and their resumes if you wanted to come in and meet.

I understood your request for the resumes ahead of time as a matter of convenience for you, however, there was no agreement to that.  The offer is for you to come in for a meeting with exempt employees on Monday and collect their resumes then.  Again, there will be a series of these meetings to get through all 28 employees.

As I stated before, aside from your FOIL request; we thought that you might appreciate meeting with the employees face to face and receiving their resumes.

Let me know if you're interested.

Elena

1:25 p.m. Thursday:

Elena,

No, thank you.

What I want right now are the resumes.

Please let me know when I can pick them up.

- Mary

2:18 p.m. Thursday:

Okay, Mary.

We sincerely thought you might like to meet up front, and were prepared to give you immediate answers to any questions you might have as well as follow up.

The offer still stands, should you change your mind.

2:21 p.m. Thursday:

Thank you.

When and where may I pick up the resumes?

- Mary

2:33 p.m.:

Your FOIL is being processed.

- Mary Pasciak

E-mail me at mpasciak@buffnews.com or follow me on Follow  SchoolZoneBlog on Twitter Twitter. Check out the Buffalo News' education page at www.buffalonews.com/schools.

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