Angry parents backed Laurie Downs at the Board of Education meeting last night as she once again asked fellow board members to be more transparent to the public.
Since taking office in July — as she had before her election to the post — Downs has pleaded for more transparency, but her requests thus far have fallen on deaf ears. That didn’t change when she became a board member herself— until last night.
The meeting wasn’t even five minutes old when board president Susan Koukounas brought up an “old business” item titled “board discussion on personnel sheet format.” Downs renewed her request that the board change the format of the personnel sheets to include employee salaries and academic credentials when they are being recommended for approval by the board for appointments, for tenure appointments, for supervising extra-curricular activities or clubs, or for for step increases on the salary schedule. The sheets made available to the public currently list only the employees’ names, their current positions and the time frame covered by the potential action of the board. A separate set of sheets distributed with the agenda to board members only contains the salary information.
“That’s what I am requesting. Transparency to the public,” Downs said. “It’s their money and we’re spending it. If [the public] can FOIL it, they can see it.”
Downs continued making her case. “There’s no reason why we can’t have the name, the position, the salary – whether it’s hourly or flat salary, effective dates for the salary…” Downs trailed off as Koukounas interrupted her with, “Anyone else?”
When no one on the board spoke up, Downs read an email from Ann Cotten-DeGrasse, who was absent from the meeting but supported Downs’ position.
“I have always been proud to be a member of the Board of Education and as such have tried to be honest and above board in all our dealings,” Cotten-DeGrasse said in the email read by Downs. [I] “support supplying this information to the public. It is, after all, a matter of public record and is administered through contractual agreements. To not make this information public makes it appear that the BOE has something to hide which cannot be further from the truth.”
“She’s exactly right,” said Downs after finishing reading the email. “It brings up red flags. When the public doesn’t see that [someone] is making $37 an hour, they don’t understand when it comes to budget time.”
Once again, Koukounas responded with, “Anyone else?”
After a long quiet pause, board vice president Amelia Lantz threw her support behind Downs. “As long as we’re not breaking any privacy issues…I think it’s better if we come forward and display our honesty that way,” she said.
Lantz continued: “Nine times out of 10 this district has a lot of challenges and nine times out of 10 people do not conclude in our favor and I think this is an example of where we can say ‘we’re being up front and honest.'”
Downs responded with a thank you to Lantz before saying, “We’re a good board and we’re a good school district and there’s absolutely no reason why we can’t give this information to our taxpayers and show them where their money is going. It’s their money we’re playing with.”
When no one else spoke either for or against Downs’ suggestions, Koukounas said tightly, “My feeling is…tonight we’re only approving the advancement in steps [of employees] based on what the employee has given to the Director of Personnel in terms of how they’ve gotten to that next [salary] step.” Koukounas was referring to proof of credit hours for courses taken or advanced degrees that earn employees a higher step on the contractual salary scale.
“The steps and the salary scales have already been determined and that’s already public information,” she continued. Koukounas said she wanted to be clear that the board was voting to accept only “what the personnel director has reviewed and approved.”
Tension among the board members was palpable as Downs countered with, “I understand that Madame President, [but] we should know how much a chaperone makes. We should know what [an employee] with a bachelor degree makes. This is definitely public information— 100 percent.”
When Lantz spoke up again, she seemed to diffuse some of the edginess between Downs and Koukounas. “This is an opportunity,” she said. “This is an opportunity for this board to say, ‘Here, we’re giving you additional information and you don’t have to pull teeth for it.'”
“I think it’s an act of kind of extending the olive branch,” she continued. “It’s us taking a step forward to meet the public.”
“It would definitely bring the public closer to us,” said Downs. “The public would understand more of what we’re up against when it comes to budget time. I see it as a plus. I don’t see it as a minus anywhere.”
“Anyone else?” asked Koukounas again, and with no response, the meeting moved on to other items on the agenda.
But the discussion of the subject of transparency wasn’t done. Irate parents were yet to have their say.
When the microphone was opened to public comment, Flanders resident Susan Tocci minced no words as she addressed the board. “You know you have a lot of problems with taxpayers thinking things are hidden behind closed doors.”
She agreed with Lantz’s analogy of the extending an olive branch and questioned Koukouknas’ attitude. “You seem like you are digging your heels in on this. I’m not sure what the discussion is and why it’s not voted on. When does the discussion end and it gets put into play?”
The board is “just having discussion tonight. I’m not digging my heels in, I just said what I thought,” responded Koukounas. “This is just a practice that we have. We’ve done it this way a long time and we’re just reviewing our practices. It’s always good to review practices. That’s all.”
“I agree, but I think I’ve heard Mrs. Downs bring this subject up at numerous meetings before and it just seems to be discussion, discussion, discussion and nothing comes out of the discussion,” complained Tocci. “Is it voted on?”
“No,” said Koukounas.
“So how is it decided? When does the discussion end, and the practice end and we decide we’re going to put this information out to the public,” Tocci asked angrily. Downs nodded in agreement as Tocci spoke.
“We have to move forward,” said Koukounas quietly.
“Well, I think she’s asked numerous times to move forward,” retorted Tocci, referring to Downs.
“No, that was just discussed tonight, that’s it,” said Koukounas.
Tocci directed her next question to Downs. “Ms. Downs, have you brought this up before because I believe we have?”
“If you have any other question—” Koukounas cut her off.
“So, I’m not going to get an answer from you once again?” came the angry reply from Tocci.
“If you have any other question,” repeated Koukounas.
“Am I going to get an answer? ‘Cause that’s not an answer,” snapped Tocci.
When Koukounas indicated she wouldn’t answer, a furious Tocci closed with, “that’s sad. That’s why the taxpayer has a problem with the board. They do. They may not be here [at the meeting,] but it’s talked about. This could really be resolved very quickly…”
Koukounas interrupted her again, this time with a “thank you,” before Tocci’s allotted speaking time was up.
The parent and grandparent of Riverhead students, Dawn Gilliam, approached the podium next. “I’m a taxpayer,” she said. “This is my first time up here. I’m going to ask that same question. When is it going to be voted on? I’d like to know.”
Pointing to the few audience members in attendance, she said, “The attendance here is no more than four or five. No one’s here. And the reason is you guys aren’t trusted.”
“I love this district,” Gilliam said. “My kids went through here. My grandson is graduating in June. I love it here. However, everything is a secret. We just want to know something. That olive branch that was mentioned? What is the big deal? I don’t understand. Make me understand. Help me to understand. Why can’t this be voted on instead of…that’s the end of the discussion,” she said.
“Um, no,” said Koukounas. “We’re not making this a big issue. We just had a discussion on it. When it was brought up in July we didn’t even realize on our side [of the paperwork] we had the credentials for promotions listed and would it be okay to have them listed on the public side? And this is just something that we’ve done for many years and have to review it. We discussed it tonight. We’ll move forward however the board of ed pleases.”
Gilliam wanted clarification. “So does this come up again? Or is this it?”
“This is it,” replied Koukounas. “It’s just a practice. It’s nothing.” But when Koukounas added, “It’s just the way our culture is,” Downs sniggered and buried her face in her hands.
“It’s nothing that has to be voted on, It’s not an issue. It’s just discussion,” continued Koukounas.
“How do we come to a conclusion? What happens next now since you are aware of what the taxpayers want?” asked Gilliam.
Koukounas seemed flustered. “This is not an issue for…this is how we practice what we do in the culture that we’ve done in the past years. So we just had a discussion to review our practices. That’s it. That’s all that is tonight. We’ll move forward. We’re not making an issue out of it.”
“Yeah I gather that you’re not making an issue out of it, but the taxpayers are saying this is what we need to happen. We need something so that we have your backs come May when we get those phone calls any you want us to vote for the budget, when things have to go for our students, for our children” responded Gilliam.
“We’ll take that into consideration,” responded Koukounas.
Tocci returned to the podium to add, “What’s sad is that Riverhead School District looks bad when things like this happen. We have phenomenal, phenomenal teachers. We have teachers here who pour their heart and soul into teaching our children.”
“Then you sit at a board meeting and you can never get an answer from you,” an exasperated Tocci continued. “The board, and I’m not saying all of you, makes the district look bad to the taxpayer when you have teachers that do everything in their power to make our school look better. It’s very, very sad that you can’t give a direct answer.”
“Thank you,” Koukounas responded in a tired voice. “Anyone else?”
Aquebogue resident Yolanda Thompson asked Koukounas “why there needs to be a debate about public information being put on the agenda. Why is it even debatable?”
“It’s not a debate,” countered Koukounas as Thompson barely stopped to let her speak.
“My husband is a town employee. All of their salaries are public information,” said Thompson. When she pointed out that both the district and the town are municipalities, Koukounas agreed.
“You are a government employee. Your salary, your pension, all your benefits is public information. You can look my husband up. What’s the secret?” Thompson asked in a raised voice.
“There is no secret,” said Koukounas in response.
“Then why is it a problem?” Thompson said in a louder voice.
“It’s not a problem,” said Koukounas.
“It shouldn’t be. It should just be put on the agenda then,” said Thompson angrily before segueing into a series of questions about the budget codes and asking why there wasn’t a document available listing what each budget code represents.
Thompson explained how frustrating it was to not know which account money was being transferred from or to without knowing what the codes stand for.
“We know what we’re voting on and every time you come to the podium I tell you the same thing,” said Koukounas. “[Using budget codes] is a common practice. This is the practice for New York State. We go by codes. Everybody knows the codes who is in education.”
“When a member of the public comes to the podium [to ask about the transfers] I should be able to get an answer. Our superintendent for finances is sitting right there,” said Thompson indicating Deputy Superintendent Sam Schneider. “Why is he not able to answer the question for you?”
“He does,” said Koukounas leaving Thompson sputtering and speechless before closing her off with “Thank you, Ms. Thompson. Motion to adjourn.”
Before the motion to adjourn was approved, Lantz broke in with, “just for the sake of diffusing this, can we agree to have an answer for the public [at] our next meeting regarding this topic? I think they deserve that.” The few audience members applauded Lantz’s words as she attempted to cool down the heated atmosphere in the auditorium.
“Thank you,” said Thompson.
“Motion to adjourn,” said Koukounas abruptly and as the motion was carried she added, “Good night.”
Board member Greg Meyer was absent. Members Kimberly Ligon and Christopher Dorr were in attendance but remained silent during the contentious discussion.
“I don’t understand why we just couldn’t say ‘we’re going to do it,’” Downs said after the meeting.