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Behind Closed Doors: Buffalo Schools get good marks, but few other boards get it right

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 A Buffalo -based watchdog group says that in a sample of school boards across the state, two thirds of them didn't use the right reasons when shutting the doors during public meetings and going into executive session.A survey from the New York Coalition for Open Governmentexamined meetings, when there are minutes, from 20 different school boards. Coalition President Paul Wolf says many school boards invoke the closed door session in improper ways, not justified by law.

'A lot of bodies will say we’re going to go into executive session to discuss a personnel matter. But, that’s just not sufficient. You need to at least state: We’re going to discuss the hiring of someone, the disciplining of someone. You don’t have to state names but at least give us a clue or a reason as to what it is you’re discussing," Wolf says.

Wolf says Buffalo’s school board did well in the first six-months of last year when the study was done, with all four-executive sessions called properly. Other districts didn't fare as well.

Out of the 158 executive session motions reviewed, 61% were not in compliance with  the Open Meetings Law . During the six month period studied only 39% of executive session motions were made correctly (62 out of 158).

Credit NY Coalition for Open Government

In some cases, like the Niagara Falls City School District, the coalition was not able to assess the validity of that district's closed sessions because all of the minutes during ther survey period were not available.

Wolf says individul board members can police themselves, when members speak up and vote against  the motion to go into executive session, but he adds that rarely happens. "I  only recall seeing one where people voted 'no'. I think all too often people go into executive session and don’t really question it. So, it was interesting, as I said in the report, it’s kind of a unicorn thing, someone objects to an executive session and in that session, I think it was in Hempstead, the executive session motion failed."


School Districts Executive ... by WBFO

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.