The Riverhead school board routinely spends hours in closed-door meetings discussing things the state Open Meetings Law requires to be discussed in public, according to former Riverhead assistant superintendent Michael Ivanoff.
Ivanoff, whose employment as the district’s top financial officer was formally terminated January 11, (see prior story) has sued the district in State Supreme Court, alleging that the January 11 Board of Education meeting was illegal because, like all Riverhead school board meetings, it began as as an “illegally convened executive session” hours before the board’s public meeting was called to order, according to Ivanoff.
Ivanoff says he has personally witnessed the school board discuss many topics, including school finances and taxation, that are required by law to be discussed in open meetings. The board meetings are “illegal” and actions taken at them, including his termination, are also illegal, Ivanoff says.
Each of the semi-monthly Board of Education meetings begins with an executive session at 5:30 p.m. The board’s open meeting begins at 7 p.m., when board members generally file into the high school auditorium to conduct business as per the published agenda, which lists “Executive Session” as the second agenda item after “Call to order.”
The published agenda, available on the district’s website and in paper form at the board meeting, says “The board will consider executive session topics after the meeting is opened until approximately 7:00 p.m. and will then convene into open session.” Sometimes, as it did on February 8, the board will adjourn to executive session again following the conclusion of the public portion.
“I’ve only been in one other school district and they did everything by the book,” Ivanoff said, referring to the Rocky Point school district, where he left a tenured post as its financial administrator to accept the job in Riverhead in July 2008.
“In Riverhead, the board spends many hours in executive session,” Ivanoff said. He admits he was not always present for the closed-door meetings.
“I know by law there are only eight things you’re supposed to talk about in executive session,” Ivanoff said, referring to New York’s Open Meetings Law, which exempts from the public discussion requirement a short list of topics, including personnel matters. “How could they spend so many hours talking about those eight things,” he asks.
Besides, Ivanoff says, when he was invited into executive sessions, he witnessed board members discuss topics that the law requires to be discussed in public.
An example he cites was a discussion of the current year’s tax levy that Ivanoff says took place behind closed doors on November 30, the day before he was fired.
The board agenda published prior to the meeting included a resolution authorizing a tax levy of more than $83.4 million, which was $721,000 higher than the estimated tax levy presented to voters before the May 18, 2010 school budget vote.
On the morning of the meeting, Riverhead Schools Superintendent Nancy Carney told RiverheadLOCAL the difference was because the state budget wasn’t passed before the school budget vote, so district officials had to estimate state education aid.
“The board will be discussing the impacts of the corrected real property tax levy at tonight’s meeting,” Carney said in a phone interview on the morning of Nov. 30.
But a discussion did not take place at the board’s public meeting that evening. Carney announced at the beginning of the public portion of the meeting that the meeting’s previously published agenda had been amended because “the amount of the tax levy on the published agenda was incorrect.” She said the corrected agenda contained a tax levy number “consistent with what was presented to voters before the budget vote.”
The board adopted the amended resolution and, after the meeting, Carney directed questions about the correction to Ivanoff. He explained that the district would take the $721,000 from its fund balance. See Nov. 30 story.
This week, Ivanoff said board members discussed what to do about the tax levy in his presence during the executive session and decided to make up the state aid shortfall with money from its fund balance rather than increase the tax levy.
“We definitely discussed it at the board meeting,” Riverhead Board of Education president Ann Cotten-DeGrasse said in a phone interview Wednesday. “We went out into the open session and had basically the same discussion we had in executive session,” she said.
“I can’t say any more about any of this because it’s a personnel matter,” Cotten-DeGrasse said of Ivanoff’s allegations. “But Riverhead doesn’t do anything any different than any other school district on the island,” she said.
“From now on we are going to actually open the meeting,” Cotten-DeGrasse said, “and we’re going to formally motion in to executive session.”
Cotten-DeGrasse said there is nothing nefarious going on. She notes that school board members are volunteers who spend many, many hours overseeing the operations of the school district. It’s a very demanding, complex job, she said. If board members go over things before the public meeting, it’s simply to get a clear understanding of everything, “so we don’t go out there bumping into each other.”
Ivanoff said this week he is not sure whether he’ll be bringing any other lawsuits against the district in connection with his firing.
“Right now, I’m focused on trying to find another job,” Ivanoff said.