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September 30, 2010

Keep the public ignorant, says school district

To the public demanding to know why the school superintendent is leaving early and four other administrators have been fired, suspended or transferred, the Jordan-Elbridge school board replies: None of your business.

However, a state Supreme Court Judge Donald A. Greenwood has ruled the district has violated state Freedom of Information Law when it refused to release Superintendent Marilyn J. Dominick's severance agreement.

In an unusual move, he ordered the district to pay plaintiff William Hamilton's legal fees of $2,500. The district is considering an appeal.

Greenwald is hearing a second lawsuit alleging the violation of the state Open Meetings Law in appointment of an interim superintendent.

Hamilton, the district's business manager has been suspended with pay. The second suit was bought by David Zehner, the high school principal who also was suspended with pay. Both men were paid more than $100,000 in 2009, according to SeeThroughNY.

Here's a brief background about the controversy that is roiling the 1,600-student school district located between Syracuse and Auburn:

  • Despite public clamor, the district refuses to explain reasons for its extraordinary house cleaning: forcing out the superintendent 18 months before her contract expires; suspending Hamilton and Zehner; firing the district treasurer; and reassigning a school principal.

  • When Hamilton filed a FOIL request seeking Dominick's severance deal, she rejected it on the grounds of her own personal privacy.

  • A mailing to school district residents in July announced had been appointed interim superintendent effective November 1, but there is no record the school board ratified such action in a public meeting.
In his FOIL decision, Greenwood wrote:
"Dominick's desire to keep the reason for her retirement and value of her severance package secret is not a sufficient basis under the Freedom of Information Law to deny the subject FOIL request."
He also found that the severance agreement included no confidentiality agreement as the district alleged.
"In any event, this Court would not be bound by a confidentiality agreement and must make its own determination regarding disclosure."
Greenwood's full decision can be found here at the end of the news article.

On Wednesday, Greenwood heard arguments from Frank Miller, a school district attorney, who said reports his explanation:

"They got their public relations out ahead of the formal board action," the district's lawyer, Frank Miller, said after the proceeding. "That's what we said in our affidavit. We didn't pull any punches about it.... There's been no formal appointment."
A third legal issue is raised by the school board's actions. Danny Mevec, a second district lawyer, says state education law prohibits school board members from publicly discussing disciplinary action against school employees.
"The myth of confidentiality is just that, a myth," said Bob Freeman, executive director of the state Department of State's Committee on Open Government. "It's crap."
School Superintendent Marilyn Dominick and board President Mary Alley both have said they cannot discuss personnel matters handled by the board in executive session.

"There's no law that says that," Freeman countered. "What they're saying is we choose not to talk about it."

Freeman said that the word "personnel" never appears in the state's open meeting law. The only things the board cannot discuss, he said, are matters that would identify a specific student or things that are specifically prohibited by law.

"These other things are not inherently confidential," he said.

In an editorial, the Syracuse Post-Standard commented on the Freedom of Information Law:
There are no exceptions in the law that allow a district to hide when this kind of upheaval is visited upon its schools. The potential for personal embarrassment or the revelation of unpleasant facts often tempts public officials to keep public business private. That's precisely why laws are written to compel disclosure, unless certain harm under particular conditions, as spelled out clearly in the law, can result.

Posted by Lise Bang-Jensen

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