The Saugerties school board held a retreat earlier this month. Board president Robert Thomann said the session was not a violation of the state open meetings law largely because there was no discussion of public business.
During an August meeting of the school board, trustees had mentioned a number of board goals that might be discussed at the retreat, including the perception of gender inequity among athletic coaches and the definition of student achievement.
But Robert Freeman, executive director of the state Committee on Open Government, said discussion of policy, whether informal or not, would likely be a matter of public interest and should not be done behind closed doors.
On Tuesday of this week, Thomann said trustees were aware of the law and didn’t feel they were in violation of it.
“After the elections, sometime in the summer, there’s a mix of old board members and new board members, and we really want to get to know each other,” said Thomann about the retreat, held in the high school’s board conference room on Thursday, September 1. “After the process of getting sworn in, in July and all the stuff that’s happening over the summer you’re kind of hitting the ground running,” explained Thomann. “So it’s just a chance to do a little bit of team-building, to get to know each other a little bit, and to hear from the New York State School Boards Association, who has some expertise on what you can do on a board and what you can’t do on a board, the process of how a board would go about setting goals, how a board and administration would set district goals, how to look at maintaining our financial integrity, and the evaluation of the superintendent.”
Much of the content was “a lot of process stuff really so we’re on the same wavelength,” he said. “We’re pretty aware of [the law]. That’s why we wanted to have the actual goal-setting out in public.”
But Freeman disagreed. “Why would there be a desire to close something like that?” he said. “The open meetings law has been in effect since 1977. What is a meeting? The contention back in those days on the part of many was that if members of a board or city council met not to take action or vote, such as workshops, study sessions, it was not a meeting. But the Court of Appeals said that in any situation in which a quorum gathers to conduct, even if there’s no intent to take action, it’s a meeting…I’ve never really understood the desire to hold a private training session.”
Though the school board also held a meeting this Tuesday, September 13, in the board conference room in the high school library, Thomann said a detailed discussion of board and district goals would likely be held in a completely separate meeting which would be open to the public.
“The next step that we’re looking at is to set district goals in conjunction with the administration, and that would be at a public meeting,” Thomann said. “That hasn’t been done in quite a while. We’re trying to get some dates lined up, and it will be like a regular board meeting but there won’t be any agenda other than to set up goals. We’ll have a facilitator in from the School Boards Association, and the public can observe it. I’m not sure yet how much participation the public would have in it, but we’re trying to map that out to do something where it’s time to update where the district is and where it needs to go as a collaboration between the board and the administration. We can set goals for the superintendent and goals for the board to accomplish.”
Thomann said that the school board had held a similar retreat last year. Even calling it a retreat may give the impression it’s a lot fancier than it really was. He added. “It’s officially called that when you don’t have a public meeting,” Thomann said, noting that it was held from 6:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. on a Thursday night.
“Retreat makes it sound like you’re going to a hotel someplace and staying for a couple of days,” said the school board president. “It’s really just four hours at the end of the day when people have already worked a full day, so you’re there kind of as a labor of love to figure out how to do the best job you can. It’s cold pizza and cans of soda.”