School boards, including in Schenectady, regularly fail to properly specify reasons for going into executive session to discuss matters outside the ear of the public, according to a new report from the New York Coalition for Open Government.
In an analysis of meeting minutes from 20 school districts, including both Schenectady and Amsterdam, the nonprofit organization found that school districts often did not give a specific reason for going into closed sessions or cited overly-broad boilerplate language.
Paul Wolf, executive director of the coalition, said school boards and other public bodies should minimize the amount of time they meet in closed session but that they need to clearly specify a reason to go into executive session.
“We certainly think that should be a rare occurrence and it probably happens more often than it should,” Wolf said of boards going into executive session. “But if you are going to go behind closed doors, your motion should be proper so the public has an idea of what it is that you are talking about behind closed doors.”
The 20 districts surveyed for executive sessions held from Jan. 1, 2020 through June 30 conducted an average of nine executive sessions over the course of six months, according to the report.
After reviewing 158 motions for executive session across the 20 school districts, the organization found that 61 percent of the motions in their determination did not adequately specify the reason for going into public session.
The report concluded that Schenectady did not give any reasons for its executive sessions, but the finding was driven largely by incomplete meeting minutes, which did not include the reasons for closed sessions provided during the meeting.
“The (Schenectady) school board met behind closed doors almost every regular scheduled school meeting for hours at a time without the public having any clue as to why,” the group wrote of Schenectady in its report.
At the very least, the Schenectady district does not appear to be properly recording the executive session motions in meeting minutes. Board meeting minutes only indicated that a “motion to go into executive session was made” at the meeting, but did not specify even the broad category of exemption the board was using to go into a closed meeting.
Board members do actually provide more detail in the motions to go into executive session during meetings, but those motions, usually outlined by the board president, rely on broad boilerplate language covering a litany of reasons to go into executive session.
The board regularly agrees to go into closed session to discuss the “medical, financial, credit 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.”
Wolf said that the meeting minutes should reflect the full motion and that it shouldn’t be necessary for people to review a meeting video to find out the reason the board moved to meet privately.
“The minutes should properly reflect the motion that was made; the reason should be stated in the minutes,” Wolf said in an interview Wednesday. “People shouldn’t have to watch the video recording of the meeting to what happened accurately, the minutes should accurately reflect what happened.”
Schenectady school board President John Foley on Wednesday acknowledged that the district should provide more detailed information about executive session motions, but he also defended the board’s use of the closed sessions and said they do provide a reason for each executive session motion.
He said if he is unsure how to specify the need for an executive session, he consults with the district’s attorney and that he ensures the discussion in the closed session remains on topic.
“I’m very careful about making sure I have the right reason and justification for going into executive session, and I work hard to make sure the discussion that takes place in executive session is for that reason.”
While the state open meetings law outlines a series of reasons that enable a public board to hold a closed session during a public meeting, Wolf said the school board must go beyond simply citing the broad statutory language, citing what litigation is to be discussed or whether a personnel discussion applies to the “promotion” or the “demotion” of an employee. He said broad, boilerplate language that covers numerous reasons for a closed session and is regularly used by the board signals they aren’t providing a specific reason for a particular closed session.
“At least give us a clue or a reason as to what it is you are discussing,” he said, noting the board needs to provide enough information for the public to recognize the board is justified in discussing the topic privately. “Give us some idea about the specifics.”
Wolf also argued that board members should do more to resist closed sessions, calling it a “unicorn” occurrence that members of a board actually challenged or opposed a call for a closed session. He said while boards may be empowered to discuss matters privately, they can also decide to discuss more of those topics in public.
“You have a legal right to go behind closed doors but you don’t have to, and I wish more public bodies took that position,” Wolf said.