School board president Susan Koukounas, left, calls a vote at a school board meeting this summer.
File photo: Denise Civiletti

Correction appended. See below.

It was a pretty typical school board meeting Tuesday night.

The seven elected trustees spent an hour or so meeting behind closed doors before coming out to conduct a public meeting where they listened to presentations by administration officials and unanimously approved a host of resolutions — largely without comment, question or discussion.

These elected trustees go through the motions of a public meeting once or twice a month, officially conducting the official business of the district whose operations — including its $140 million operating budget — they are entrusted by the voters of the district to oversee.

Most of the time, they don’t even bother to explain to the public what they’re voting on.

Residents — the handful of people who are not employed by the district who attend the school board meetings — are given an opportunity to address the board. The communication is generally one-way. Questions are usually unanswered and criticism — heaven forbid — is generally shut down. Some board members, most notably the board president, think it’s appropriate to simply scowl at any parent/taxpayer who stands up at the podium and dares question or criticize the board or the administration.

Collectively, they seem to resent having to do anything at all in a public forum.

And there’s something about the culture of this seven-member elected body that successfully squelches internal dissent. Even people who run for school board as reformers become mute once they’re elected to the club.

The Riverhead school board violates the State Open Meetings Law. All the time. And every member of that board participates in violating the law. 

They do this by discussing in private, closed-door meetings matters that the law requires them to discuss in public. They also do this by discussing in private emails matters that the law requires them to discuss in public session.

Ask yourself: If school board members are not violating the Open Meetings Law, how are they voting on everything that comes before them with virtually zero discussion? Unlike the town board, they hold no public “work sessions” where they hash things out and review resolutions.

And if that’s what they’re doing — mindlessly rubber-stamping whatever is put before them — they are violating their fiduciary duty to the district’s students, parents and taxpayers.

I’ve reported about this off and on over the years. I’ve editorialized about their behavior. I even brought the executive director of the New York State Committee on Open Government to Riverhead to give a workshop for officials on how to comply with the state’s laws intended to guarantee transparency and public access.

Nothing changed their behavior. If anything, it’s gotten worse.

The board discusses the budget in illegal executive sessions.

The board discusses the auditor’s report in illegal executive sessions.

The board discusses curriculum choices and the school district’s progress on state assessments in illegal executive sessions.

It’s more comfortable for board members to meet privately, out of public view. As then-board president Ann Cotten-DeGrasse explained to me several years ago, defending the board’s practice of reviewing and discussing the agenda in executive session prior to the public meeting — in direct violation of the Open Meetings Law: “We do that so we don’t go out there in public and look like a bunch of bumbling idiots,” Cotten-DeGrasse told me in 2011.

It’s more comfortable for board members to disagree in private. It’s easier for a majority of the board to “ice out” dissenters — as the behavior has been described to me by both present and former board members. If you don’t go along, as long as you’re in the minority, you’re just “iced out” — you become invisible and are completely ignored.

It’s more comfortable in a private setting for some board members to make disparaging statements about some segments of the student body. At least one member of our current board of education believes some students, because of their socioeconomic status, are “unteachable.” Too much of the district’s resources are spent trying to help them, in this person’s view. 

The less the public knows, the better off they are. And what’s good for the board is good for the district, right?

Wrong.

Back-room deals and closed-door discussions are never, ever the path to good government.

Two former board members have gotten the gumption to speak out about what they witnessed — and participated in — during their time on the board.

Tuesday night, Cotten-DeGrasse took the podium and chastised the board for regularly and routinely violating the Open Meetings Law.

She spilled the beans on how the district’s outside auditor used to come before the board in executive session to “give a more extensive report” than the incredibly brief statement that everything’s hunky-dory given by a member of the auditing firm at the podium each year.

“We violated the Open Meetings Law,” Cotten-DeGrasse said Tuesday. “Let the sun shine in.”

In the past, when I asked how the board could vote to accept the audit report without discussing its contents, I was told the firm gave the board’s audit committee a full report and the committee briefed the whole board. Oh, really? In what forum? Because it sure didn’t happen in an open meeting as required by law. The response from the audit committee chairperson at the time? Blank stare and silence.

I’m grateful for the former board president’s change of heart and that she’s gained the courage to speak out. I hope other former board members — and current members — find it within themselves to follow suit.

They are conducting the public’s business, after all.

“The Open Meetings Law is short and it is easy to understand,” NYS Committee on Open Government executive director Robert Freeman says.

He’s right. The members of the Riverhead Board of Education — like all government officials — should read it. And abide by it. They took an oath to uphold the law. When they don’t, we all lose.

Correction: This article incorrectly stated that the board met with a representative of Timothy Hill Children’s Ranch in executive session and has been amended to remove that statement. The representative met individually with the former district superintendent and former board president, not the entire board. RiverheadLOCAL regrets the error. 


The Open Meetings Law is found in N.Y. Public Officers Law, Article 7.

Read the law here

The legislative declaration is worth reading, because it explains why this matters:

It is essential to the maintenance of a democratic society that the public business be performed in an open and public manner and that the citizens of this state be fully aware of and able to observe the performance of public officials and attend and listen to the deliberations and decisions that go into the making of public policy. The people must be able to remain informed if they are to retain control over those who are their public servants. It is the only climate under which the commonweal will prosper and enable the governmental process to operate for the benefit of those who created it.

The New York State School Boards Association has published a review of the open meetings law to explain these matters to school board members. 

The New York State Committee on Open Government publishes a booklet called “Your Right to Know.” 

 

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Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.