Want to go to a Buffalo School Board meeting at City Hall to hear the latest about the ongoing crisis in a district charged with educating your child and 30,000 others?
Great. Here’s how.
First, circle City Hall and find a parking space. Be sure to do so early, because if you arrive too late, the doors to the building will be locked. Take the elevator to the eighth floor and join dozens of other people waiting for someone to open the board chambers.
With any luck, you can squeeze into the narrow, windowless waiting area with air conditioning. But if there is no room, or you are claustrophobic, you can stand in the hall with lots of other parents and their tired children.
The board will hold its first regular meeting of the new school year today, and attending a meeting is the best way to appreciate the district’s idea of transparency.
Forget seeing the full board agenda. The agenda packet is password protected, and only certain people are emailed a password.
Around 5:30 p.m., when the board meeting is supposed to start, the superintendent, central office administrators and board members will arrive. They will gingerly nudge past you and the rest of the crowd to an open door at the end of the waiting area – for staff only – leading to the board chambers.
Once they all settle comfortably into their seats, often 10 to 15 minutes later, a security guard will open the rear chamber door and let in everyone else.
Tonight’s meeting will probably be crowded. So only some people will be lucky enough to land an empty seat. Everybody else will be left milling around outside and craning their heads in the doorway to get a sense of what’s going on.
It doesn’t matter much, though, because the seats in the chambers are uncomfortable, the sound quality is poor, and the board will eventually go into executive session anyway to talk privately about some student, personnel or legal issue.
Board members have their pick of conference rooms on the seventh or eighth floors to hold this closed-door meeting, but they won’t go anywhere. Instead, they will usher you out of their chambers, beyond the waiting area and into the hallway where no seats exist.
You did not want to address the board, did you?
Because unless you signed up for that privilege by noon the day before, that’s not happening.
Perhaps you could try calling one of the central office administrators to find out what you want to know. The school district no longer posts its central office staff directory online, so it can take a good long while to find the right phone number. But keep trying.
Wait, you’re asking for a document? Seriously?
This $900 million, publicly funded organization employs roughly 3,400 teachers and educates nearly 31,000 children.
What chance do you have at figuring out what you need to know?
“Zero,” said longtime parent activist Samuel Radford III.
Buffalo school district leaders regularly use the word “transparent” to describe their decision-making and information-sharing processes.
But the truth is, few members of the public would ever describe the district this way. They are more inclined to use words like “secretive,” “closed” and “disrespectful” to describe how the central administration and board conduct business.
For parents who want help, the process is so discouraging that the District Parent Coordinating Council actually wrote and distributed a detailed guideline to help them address the School Board.
“We literally have to train them,” said Radford, the council’s president.
New board members ran this year – at least in part – on a pledge to deal with concerned parents and community members in a more open manner.
“Everyone has the right to see, hear, know what’s going on,” said new board member Theresa Harris-Tigg, vice president for student achievement. “When you look at the situation our students are in today, it certainly raises a lot of concern and a lot of suspicions. So I think it’s more important to be as transparent as we can be because of the situation our kids are in.”
New board member James Sampson referred to the board’s meeting last week, in which a couple of parents shouted down the board because parents were not given input into the district’s revised student transfer plan.
“I think when information is withheld, the first question is, ‘Why is it being kept secret?’ and you lose credibility,” he said. “It’s public business. It’s public tax dollars. It’s not a private business. We don’t own it. The stakeholders own it, and we’re serving them.”
He will introduce a motion at tonight’s meeting to require board and committee meetings to be held in the community at easily accessible schools to accommodate all interested attendees.
His motion would also require the district to liveblog and stream all board meetings live on the district’s website.
Currently, only The Buffalo News regularly provides the public any type of live meeting coverage.
“Right now, there is no transparency whatsoever,” said board member Carl Paladino. “I’m a board member, and I can’t get a copy of the reorganizational plan, the reorganizational chart.”
Paladino has also railed against the district’s established policy of holding small group meetings the Monday before the regular board meeting. These meetings essentially give board members private time to gain information and question school administrators about agenda items.
“It’s really to make sure the board members know what they are signing off on,” said board member Sharon Belton-Cottman.
She and other board members have suggested these small group meetings function similarly to “work sessions” held by other public bodies. But they’re different in one respect: They’re structured to circumvent the state’s Open Meetings Law, which requires meetings of a majority of board members to be open to the public.
The district’s small group meetings are limited to only four board members at a time, less than a board majority. For that reason, Paladino and Sampson refuse to attend them.
Robert Freeman, executive director of the state’s Committee on Open Government, said this practice is not illegal but could be challenged.
“Although there is no decision, yet, of a court indicating that the practice is contrary to law, I would not be surprised if that finding is eventually reached,” he said.
Belton-Cottman contends that board members can talk candidly and find solutions to district issues outside of the public eye.
“Everything that we have ever tried to do gets scrutinized before we even try to talk amongst ourselves about it,” she said. “We can’t have a civil conversation without it making press and being headlines on the news.”
New board President Barbara Seals Nevergold said she believes the board should address the transparency issue by having more frequent community meetings, monthly or bimonthly, and moving the meetings around the district so the public has the chance to ask questions on particular topics.
“I think, overall, there has been concern about lack of communication, so again, I’d like to address those issues where people feel they are not being informed,” Nevergold said.
Jason McCarthy, the board’s new vice president for executive affairs, said, “We do our best to have transparency, but I don’t think it’s good enough. Is there more we could do? Definitely.”
For more on this story, visit the School Zone blog at www.buffalonews.com/schoolzone.