By Kathryn G. Menu
Pierson teacher Jim Kinnier attended last Thursday’s Sag Harbor School Board meeting with a singular goal in mind — to convince members of the school community to stop attacking each other and instead work on the betterment of district as a whole.
Kinnier and others spoke on the recent resignation of Gregg Schiavoni from the board of education at the close of a nearly four-hour budget workshop and business meeting.
Schiavoni resigned March 3, and in his resignation questioned the board’s conduct, respect for each other and the material it discusses behind closed doors. He called the board “a ship that can’t be righted.”
“I don’t know what the inner workings of the board are,” said Kinnear on Tuesday. “But I look at the school district and I see a ship that is sailing around in good waters and what I haven’t seen us do is really put our sails up and do the very best we can.”
“I think with a new level of cooperation between all school district community members, working together rather than attacking each other, we can be the school district we want to be,” he added.
At the start of the meeting, board member Ed Drohan was given the floor to deliver a speech in defense of the board — a statement both he and board president Theresa Samot said reflected his opinions alone (a full copy of Drohan’s speech is on page 8 of the newspaper, and will be posted online in our letters section)
Drohan said Schiavoni never identified his issues with the board, publicly or privately, prior to his resignation and questioned why Schiavoni or Walter Wilcoxen, who resigned last summer citing similar reasons, would make non-specific, general attacks against the board as a whole.
He also referenced internal critics with political motivations being behind this effort. Drohan was also critical of an editorial in The Sag Harbor Express and said the board is guided but not directed by its leadership, citing examples of his own independence. Lastly, he challenged Wilcoxen to a debate on these issues and asked the Noyac Civic Council (NCC) to host such a forum.
Parent Larry Baum was among the community members who also spoke about their concerns at the end of the meeting. On Tuesday, Baum said his concern stemmed from Schiavoni’s statement that executive sessions had become a forum for public discussion in some cases. Baum added he felt it was important the board recognize there is an issue if two board members resign in one year.
“It really brought to light the bigger issue that the board is not communicating and needs to work better together,” said Baum. “This is not about personal agendas, it is about working together as a team and making sure they stay focused on our children. It’s why we elected them.”
In addition to Wilcoxen, superintendent Dr. John Gratto and business administrator Janet Verneuille both resigned last summer. On Tuesday, NCC President Elena Loreto said executive session was her concern and added she did not believe four people would resign from a school district in less than a year if there were not issues at play.
Former board president Walter Tice, whose daughter Chris is on the current board, defended the board and said he supported Drohan’s statements.
On Wednesday, Tice said he believed criticism about how the board handles executive sessions “were off the mark” and came from a lack of understanding on what could be discussed behind closed doors.
Tice said Schiavoni “had the right and responsibility to make a motion either in executive session or public session that would have placed any item he was concerned about on the public session agenda.”
Tice said he believed the resignation of four people in the district was not a signal something is amiss, noting Gratto and Verneuille left to take other jobs. He criticized Wilcoxen’s resignation, stating the issues Wilcoxen had with the board had to exist prior to his candidacy for re-election, and questioning the fairness to voters.
Tice added creating controversy around issues like executive session where he believes none exists could impact the quality of the school system.
On Tuesday, Schiavoni refuted claims the board was not aware of his concerns, in particular, about executive session.
In two emails provided to The Express — one to the full board and another to Samot, Tice and Dr. Bonuso — Schiavoni expresses concerns with aspects of executive session procedure.
On Thursday, board member Mary Anne Miller said a concern she has had is opening a meeting up publicly — as required by law — but then entering executive session in the district conference room, away from where public meetings are traditionally held.
She said she also believes it would be wise for school board attorney Tom Volz to be present for all executive sessions.
“I think it is important for the board to understand that we are representatives of the community and need to be held to the highest level of accountability, but the quality of education, the day to day and the life of a student is not being impacted by these issues,” stressed Miller.
In response to a request via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the school district provided The Express with nine executive session agendas, all heavily redacted — two completely so.
On Wednesday, Samot said the redaction was completed by Volz and on any item considered “attorney client privilege.” While the board has traditionally gone into executive session to address these issues, Samot said last week Volz informed them anything that falls under attorney client privilege is not something they are required to disclose to the public.
Also redacted was anything that would reveal a specific name of a student or individuals involved in protected issues, like hiring.
Samot said Volz informed the board that anytime he is giving out specific legal opinions to the board it is considered protected under the attorney client privilege.
According to a 1996 advisory opinion issued by Robert Freeman, the executive director of the state’s committee on open government, it has long been held a municipal board may establish a privileged relationship with its attorney.
“I note that the mere presence of an attorney does not signify the existence of an attorney-client relationship; in order to assert the attorney client privilege, the attorney must in my view be providing services in which the expertise of an attorney is needed and sought,” writes Freeman. “Further, if at some point in a discussion, the attorney stops giving legal advice a public body may begin discussing or deliberating independent of the attorney. When that point is reached, I believe that the attorney client privilege has ended that that body should return to an open meeting.”
On Wednesday, Samot said the scheduling of executive sessions prior to a regular board meeting is something they have talked about with Volz.
“It’s really about scheduling to get the board members there, but also for the convenience of the community,” she said. “If we know we need to discuss a contract, for example, in executive session, we know we are going to do that before hand, and we don’t want people to have to wait for an hour while we meet.”
Samot said regardless, they do open the meeting publicly, as required by law, and then close the session, before re-opening into public session for any discussions or votes that have come out of executive session.
She added that the board holds executive sessions in the district conference room for the benefit of the public, so they are not sitting in the hallway while the board discusses closed session items in the library, where meetings are held.
“We are certainly open to changing that,” said Samot who added though she believes the board has followed the law in terms of executive session, she still views this as an opportunity.
“I think it is important we continually ask Tom [Volz] to give us advice and have him present at meetings so if an issue arises we can seek his counsel,” said Samot, noting recently two school board members — Miller and Tice — attended a conference on Open Meetings Law.
“Silence cannot be viewed as agreeing with the majority,” she said. “I think that is something we as a board need to work on. If someone has an issue we need to talk about it at the time, during the meeting, where we can all hear these concerns at the same time and discuss any issues as a full board.”