Baron’s buddy comes to his defense

VOORHEESVILLE — Tempers flared and nothing was accomplished at the Dec. 11 school board meeting as Coach Robert Baron’s self-described best friend offered a full-throated defense of Baron, and questioned the board about his resignation.   

In November, at a special meeting, a quorum of the Voorheesville Board of Education voted, 4 to 0, to accept Baron’s resignation as girls’ varsity basketball coach, but never disclosed why he resigned. The week before, the superintendent had told The Enterprise that the situation was under investigation. Baron has not returned calls.

At the Dec. 11 meeting, after a presentation on the upcoming capital project from Superintendent Brian Hunt, the public was offered its turn to speak.

Bob Burns, who called Baron his best friend, stepped to the podium.

“Number one: The ship on Bob Baron being girls' coach has sailed,” he said.

“What I’m here to discuss is the process that led to that point,” Burns said. “Voorheesville wants a fair process, \\; we’ve got questions about that.”

At the Nov. 21 special board meeting and again on Dec. 11, Burns used the student’s name. Burns is the only person who has identified the student by name in meetings. The Enterprise is withholding her name.

Burns then began to talk about what he perceived to be the heart of the problem.

“I’m going to talk about fairness,” he said. “Practice time is at the root of this and being at practice is at the root of this.”

Burns said that Baron checked the girls’ availability during preseason and adjusted practice start times to accommodate as many girls as he could.

The players, Burns said, indicated they had no conflicts.

Burns said, after a time for practice was decided on, one of Baron’s players came to him and said, “I can’t make it” to practice.  

Baron said to her, “If I had a gun. I’d shoot you,” Burns alleged.

“At the same time, in the same conversation [Baron said] 'Be careful, don’t get hurt again,'” Burns said, alluding to a sports injury.

“He didn’t run away from anything — this is what he said,” Burns said.

Superintendent Brian Hunt interjected after Burns proceeded to volunteer information that, to that point, had not been made public, and, if printed, would have made the player identifiable. (The Enterprise has withheld that information.)

“I’d like to just interrupt you, sir. I don’t think you have firsthand knowledge of what you are talking about,” Hunt said.

Burns responded: “Well, maybe, I don’t have all the knowledge, but I know many things.”

In return, Hunt said, “Well, you’re characterizing things that other people did without knowing about it, or having been there.”

“Know about what, sir?” Burns asked.

At this point, Burns became angry.

“First off, let me finish,” he scolded, “and you can pepper me with any question you want. “

“When anyone is up here, I listen to the garbage I listen to,” Burns said.

The state’s Open Meetings Law requires that a board allow the public to attend meetings but it does not require that a board allow members of the public to speak. Boards set their own policies on that with some establishing time limits, and others setting limits such as no mention of staff, and still others not allowing any public comment at all.

Burns then said that he was present at the special board meeting in November. “I listened to that. Did I interrupt anyone speaking at that point in time? Thank you. Be quiet,” he said.

Hunt shot back, “You characterized something that I said.”

At that point board president Doreen Saia tried to restore order.

“Gentlemen, please,” she said.  

Burns responded, “You look at me? Look at him [Hunt] too; I’m fine.”

“Gentlemen, I’m talking to both of you; please stop this,” Saia said. “This is a public meeting; please stop.”

“When I’m done,” Burns sharply said, “you come at me with anything you got.

Burns began to ask questions about the process the district used in its investigation of Baron.

Burns claimed that only two of 10 girls on the team were brought in to be interviewed about the incident between Baron and his player.

“My question: There are 10 girls on the team. Two people came in, that’s 20 percent in my world — why didn’t you ask the whole team to come in, with their parents and have a discussion on the issues?” Burns asked.

“It seems like you value how two [players] feel, as opposed to 10 feel — that’s the team,” he said.

The Enterprise heard from one player’s father who also expressed frustration that all of the team members and their parents weren’t informed of the investigation and weren’t consulted for their views.

“I think this verdict was partially shaped on cherry picking who they brought in for questioning,” Burns told the board.

After more pointed back and forth between Hunt and Burns, Saia stepped in.  

“Mr. Burns, I think this is a good time for me to intercede,” she said. “Under New York State Education Law and New York State Public Officers Law, there are important exceptions, to the information that the public can have … one of them involves personnel,” she said.  

“So, we cannot and will not have a discussion in a public session about the matters that were addressed involving any employee of this district,” Saia said.

Saia cited New York’s Open Meetings Law as her reason for not discussing Baron’s resignation.

“One of the reasons involves the medical, financial, credit or employment history of a particular person or corporation, or matters leading to the appointment, employment, promotion, demotion, discipline, suspension, dismissal or removal of a particular person or corporation,” she said, quoting the law.  

Everything you are asking, involves matters involving what I just read — we cannot disclose that information. It is prohibited by law.

This is not accurate.

“There is no law that makes personnel records confidential,” said Kristin O’Neill, assistant director of the New York State Committee on Open Government.

O’Neill pointed out that there is no obligation for the board to answer questions, and that no one is entitled to that information, but that’s a decision made by the board — it is not law.

While the reasons cited by Saia allow a board to meet in executive session and not discuss its deliberations, the law does not require a board to do this.

“Open Meetings Law can be cited as justification for not discussing the issue in open session,” O’Neill said, “but that doesn’t make it against the law to discuss it in open session.”

When presented with this information the day after the board meeting, Hunt conceded that it is district policy not to discuss personnel matters.

“It’s a policy that is based on the Public Officers Law,” Hunt said.

“It’s our policy that we don’t talk about it, and we are allowed to have that policy based on based Public Officers Law,” he said.

Saia was also presented with the information.

“The Public Officers Law permits the board to have this policy. I believe the policy is sound, I’m very much in favor of keeping the confidentiality of our students and personnel,” she said.

“I support the continuation of this policy,” Saia added.  

Hunt said that this was the way that every school district he’s ever worked in handles personnel matters. Hunt has worked in Voorheesville, Mohonasen, Schalmont, and Edmeston in Otsego County.

“What happens is, you get into a situation where you’re going to be harming someone or harming your organization,” Hunt said.

“Some of those things that were said [at the meeting] could be harmful,” Hunt said. “We don’t want to get into that; I don’t want to be a contributor to that.”

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