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Good government group gives school districts failing grades

The Buffalo and Williamsville school boards do it. Ken-Ton does it. North Tonawanda, Niagara Wheatfield and Niagara Falls do, too.

Others don't.

What is it?

A simple wonky government action to help people know what is going on in their school districts: posting meeting agendas online with all the supporting documents that board members receive.

That's one of the items the Buffalo Niagara Coalition for Open Government looked at when it rated the websites of 10 of the largest school districts in Erie and Niagara counties. Coalition members believe citizens should have access to the same documents that school board members have at their meetings.

"Posting an agenda without the supporting documents is insufficient for informing the public," the coalition said in a news release announcing the results of its review.

With School Board elections coming up soon, "we hope that this will be part of the discussion and debate," said Paul Wolf, president of the coalition.

The group looked at the information made available to the public, including if meeting agendas and minutes have been posted online for the last five years; meetings are video recorded and posted online; members of the public are allowed to speak before items are voted on; and if motions for executive sessions are in accordance with the Open Meetings Law.

Earlier versions of this story had incorrect information supplied by the Buffalo Niagara Coalition for Open Government. The information was corrected twice by Wolf, and several superintendents said when they used the rubric the group used, they came up with much higher marks than the group gave their districts.

One area that brought some of the districts down in marks is how they entered into an executive session, a part of the meeting where a board can exclude the public if it is talking about specific items outlined in the law. Many of the boards did not correctly state the reasons for excluding the public, the coalition found.

The boards conducted 50 executive sessions during the six-month period studied, with 23 done in accordance with the Open Meetings Law, a success rate of 46 percent, according to the coalition. It was by examining the minutes that the group determined if the proper reasons were given for holding an executive session.

"You’re not mandated to post meeting minutes, but we think it’s a good practice," Wolf said. "There's just a lot of habits, a lot of bad traditions. You've got to provide more specifics."

This is the first time the good government group has looked at school districts, Wolf said. It has reviewed various aspects of city, town and county municipalities and colleges, he said.

"It seems to be the same story, no matter what entity we review," he said.

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