In the past month, we’ve all learned a lot of unsavory things about the inner workings of the Schenectady City School District.
That knowledge comes courtesy of the ongoing trial of Steven Raucci, the district’s facilities director, who District Attorney Bob Carney maintains used explosives and vandalism to terrorize people who crossed him, or crossed his friends. The prosecution contends that Raucci was close with top school district officials to the extent that they turned a blind eye to complaints of wrongdoing.
Dozens of e-mails, recorded conversations, notes and diary entries have been entered into evidence, and seem to indicate that Raucci wielded unusual influence in the district.
Raucci case documents
To read key documents about the case, click HERE.
It took a criminal trial to shake loose this revelatory information about the school district. Raucci was arrested more than a year ago and school district officials have not yet stepped forth with a meaningful explanation of how the alleged events could have gone on for so long unchecked.
It’s important to note that if the Raucci case had not gone to trial — if it had ended via a plea bargain or dismissal, for example — these documents would likely have never seen the light of day despite a report into the situation that the school board assured the public would be “transparent.”
And despite all the eye-opening information that the trial has provided, there is still far too much the public doesn’t know about its school district. The e-mails, the wiretapped conversations, and even Raucci’s own diary were used to build a specific criminal case against a specific person: Steve Raucci.
But there are thousands of other e-mails, as well as other documents, that haven’t made it to the courtroom. These e-mails may not be germane to the criminal trial but, given the information in the e-mails we have read from the trial, they may very well contain information that the public should know.
Raucci’s own notes detail a district in which favors were dispensed, deals made and backroom politics influenced key appointments. And then there’s the July 2008 e-mail alerting Superintendent of Schools Eric Ely that “Steve R. is under a multi-county investigation,” an e-mail Ely minutes later forwarded to Raucci himself: “Just a heads up on these allegations. We need to talk about taking a head on approach pretty soon.”
Public interest in this case is intense and our coverage of this trial has been extensive. Steve Cook, our courts reporter, has done a stellar job of distilling each day’s testimony into coherent, readable stories. They are long, far longer than stories you’ll typically read in The Gazette, but we’re hearing that people in the community are reading every word. They’re also reading every word of Carl Strock’s “The View From Here,” which has followed this case since it broke last year.
Throughout this trial, we’ve used our Web site to make as much information as possible available to the public. When Steve Cook returned to the office each evening after court, he typically carried an armful of papers: copies of many of the documents submitted into evidence that day. Some days there were photos. Some days there were CDs with audio or video. Whatever he offered, we reviewed, discussed and, in most cases, posted online.
We haven’t posted everything. In some cases, we’ve posted what we think are just the relevant portions of documents, excluding sections mentioning people who had nothing to do with the court case going about their daily lives.
With all this coverage, we’re trying to give the public as much information as possible about their school district, the largest in the region, with over 10,000 students.
As a newspaper, we believe that an informed citizenry is essential to the proper functioning of democracy. This isn’t a platitude; this is a principle that drives much of what we as a newspaper do every day.
Behind closed doors
It’s easy to embrace the concept of the public’s right to know when you’re announcing the receipt of a big grant or improvement in test scores. But far too many public officials still retreat behind closed doors when controversy hits. The public’s right to know, however, isn’t a luxury that kicks in when the news is good. It’s there all the time.
Saying that it was “critical that our board of education conduct a transparent investigation to maintain the community’s trust in our schools,” the Schenectady city school board last spring commissioned a report to investigate allegations of workplace misconduct raised by the Raucci arrest. What the $13,000 report discovered and recommended remains a mystery, with the school board’s decision to keep it under lock and key upheld, in response to a lawsuit by The Gazette and Times Union, by state Supreme Court Barry Kramer.
Did the investigation uncover any problems? And if it did, have those problems been fixed? We simply don’t know.
Since the report’s completion last June, School Board President Maxine Brisport has refused, on the advice of lawyers, to talk about it. The school district is dealing with civil lawsuits filed by former employees who were allegedly victimized by Raucci.
Now, with Brisport saying some of the evidence at trial is as much news to her as it was to the general public, there are many more questions that need answering to restore public confidence in this once-proud school system.
I suspect, and I hope, the school board is dealing with at least some of these issues. The problem, from my perspective, is that the discussions are taking place out of earshot of the public.