When the Schenectady City School District opens its investigatory records about former employee Steven Raucci, the public will not be allowed in.
Only reporters from The Daily Gazette and the Times Union will be able to read and copy the documents, which can then be disseminated by both media outlets. The deal was agreed to in an out-of-court settlement with the newspapers.
While the decision to release the records was hailed as a victory, there was lingering distaste for the strict controls over viewing the records.
One resident offered a sarcastic response to the settlement, which the school board approved Wednesday night.
“We founders and members of SCOPE — why did we even have the ‘O’ in the acronym? Oh, ‘openness,’ ” said resident Bill McColl, a member of the grassroots group that backed newcomers to take over the school board in last year’s election.
SCOPE dedicated itself to transparency in government, reacting to what was perceived to be widespread secrecy under the prior administration.
But McColl said he wasn’t going to blame SCOPE-backed school board members for the decision.
“It sounds like a corporate thing,” he said, suggesting that lawyers crafted the agreement. “But I would think SCOPE people would respect the ‘O.’ ”
Others said they were dismayed that they can’t look at the documents themselves, considering that their tax money paid for the $13,000 investigation and report into Raucci’s campaign of intimidation through threats and bombings.
Raucci was convicted of arson and other serious crimes last year. Testimony at trial contradicted the major finding in the district’s investigation: that no one told administrators about Raucci’s misdeeds.
The emails, interviews and other documents that support that determination are what will be released to reporters.
The public will be able to see those documents eventually; reporters have free rein to copy everything with hand-held scanners.
But the fact that only reporters get direct access to the documents is unfortunate, said Kelly McBride, a senior faculty member of media ethics at Poynter Institute.
She said the public — including bloggers, community newspaper writers and interested residents — should not be turned away on the grounds that they aren’t members of a special group of reporters.
Transparency to the public as a whole is “a democratic value,” she said. “Our entire government is based on a system of checks and balances and part of the checks and balances is the public can scrutinize government actions.”
Daily Gazette Managing Editor Judy Patrick said she would have preferred that the district let everyone have access.
“I wish the district would’ve released the documents at the very beginning to anyone who wanted to see them,” she said. “Greater transparency leads to better government in the end.”
But school board President Cathy Lewis, who was supported by SCOPE in her election last year, said the district simply offered access to the groups that asked for it — the Daily Gazette and the Times Union.
According to the settlement, the district will keep secret some portions of the documents, but only those details that state law allows to be hidden from the public, such as Social Security numbers.
If either newspaper questions a redacted segment, the district has agreed to let the newspaper’s attorney read the section and decide whether the Freedom of Information law allows it to be hidden.
The attorney will not discuss the contents with anyone except the district’s attorney and, if necessary, a mediator who has already been chosen by both sides.
The mediator, David Wukitsch, would have the final say in any dispute over redacted parts.
Each newspaper will bear its own costs; the expense of mediation will be split with the district.
The district has 60 days to produce the documents. Reporters then have 90 days to view them. After that, the district is under no obligation in the settlement to let anyone look at the documents again.
The settlement includes a statement from the district saying that it does not agree with the newspapers that these documents should have been released under the state FOI law.