Communication lights a path to progress

We believe people who are elected to serve the public can be well intentioned but ill informed. School board members, for example, are unpaid and generally have full-time jobs that occupy them. They rely on full-time hired professionals to guide them.

The matter at hand involves the board’s decision not to reappoint a popular boys’ basketball coach at Berne-Knox-Westerlo.

Mind you, we’re not taking sides on the correctness of this decision. Quite simply, we don’t have all the facts. There can be a strident hall full of people convinced they know what is right who are not aware of some who may be silently suffering.

What we are sure about, though, is the guarantees of the state’s Open Meetings Law and of our nation’s First Amendment Rights.

“The people must be able to remain informed if they are to retain control over those who are their public servants”: So says our state’s Open Meetings Law.

Our goal is to edify, not vilify.

On Oct. 31, we published a letter from BKW’s interim superintendent, Lonnie Palmer, and the school board. We were happy to do so. We believe that reliable communication permits progress.

In the letter, the board and interim superintendent apologized for not properly thanking the community members “for their important and impassioned comments on the subject of basketball” during the board’s Oct. 21 meeting where a score of people spoke passionately in defense of the fired coach, Andrew Wright. The letter went on to scold some for “inappropriate comments,” to list some of the district’s expectations for coaches, and to say that the decision to not reappoint Wright was not made exclusively on student playing time, unhappy parents, or surveys.

The letter also stated, “In accordance with the New York Personal Privacy Protection Law, the board has a longstanding practice of not discussing personnel matters in public.”

The problem with this assertion is the New York Personal Privacy Protection Law doesn’t apply here.

Robert Freeman, the executive director of the New York State Committee on Open government, states clearly that the Personal Privacy Protection Law only applies to state agencies and records maintained by state agencies.

Throughout our coverage of Wright’s firing, school leaders have told us it can’t be discussed because it is a “personnel issue.”

The board held an executive session on Oct. 30, as allowed by law, for matters where the board is discussing  “promotion, demotion, discipline, suspension, dismissal or removal of a particular person.” Wright shared with us what went on in that meeting and also the list of expectations he had been given by school leaders two years ago.

“They can choose to discuss all of that in public if they want,” said Freeman of the board.

He’s been telling us this for years and we’ve been writing it for years.

Freeman has devoted his career to informing elected officials, journalists, and the general public about sunshine laws and even helped other countries draft them.

When a similar situation once arose in Guilderland, Freeman said of the board, “They had the right to discuss the entirety of the issue in public. It’s part of the Personnel Myth,” he said, adding that, if people repeat things enough times, they come to believe them. “It drives me crazy,” he said.

We’re not crazy yet, but we are frustrated. We’ll repeat Freeman’s statement one more time from that situation several years ago: “The law says a board may enter into executive session. The board is absolutely free to discuss the issue in public.”

We wrote last month on this page that we had been stonewalled by school leaders as we tried to get answers, to understand the situation so we could explain it to the community.

At that point, the board could have chosen to discuss the reasons for not re-appointing openly. They can still choose to discuss with the press and public matters relating to policy and philosophy. For example, is a school district as small as BKW likely to have board members in “close personal relationships” with staff members so frequently that a policy on conflict of interest should be reworked? Or, as we initially asked in this space, what should the role of a coach be?

We’re not sure if the school board members are genuinely ignorant of the law or using it as a false shield.

A citizen at the board’s Nov. 4 meeting  told the board, “Sooner or later, you must let the public and the taxpayers of BKW know specifically why you let Mr. Wright go.” The board’s vice president responded that the board had given Wright about a dozen reasons and concluded, “And he could share them with you. We can’t. You know we can’t.”

Originally, before an executive session, the school board certainly could have shared those reasons. That doesn’t mean that it should have, but it could have. A school board may adopt its own policy and clearly delineate what it will or will not discuss in public, and further if it will or will not allow the public to comment on a district employee such as Wright.

We urge BKW to make such policy decisions and publicize them so district residents know their parameters.

When we asked Freeman why a school board would persist in giving out misinformation, he said, “I believe that they are misled by people who, in my opinion, should know better. I mean attorneys, superintendents, people who are in situations where they should have knowledge.”

Still, it is school board members who are elected as public servants and we urge them to read the law, or call Freeman if they don’t believe us.

We’ll close with a thought from the late Louis Brandeis, a Supreme Court justice: “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases,” he said. “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”

He also said, “Behind every argument is someone’s ignorance.”

— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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