By TESS McRAE
P.S. 24 principal Donna Connelly allegedly violated both the state’s open meeting law and the school chancellor’s regulations when a reporter was asked to leave last month’s school leadership team meeting.
The school leadership team, made up of parents, school administrators and faculty, meets monthly with the primary goal, according to the chancellor’s regulations, of developing the school’s Comprehensive Educational Plan and ensuring it is aligned with the school-based budget.
Another Riverdale Review reporter was present at previous SLT meetings after presenting sections of the chancellor’s regulations to prove that the public was allowed to observe proceedings.
However, during the December 18 meeting, Connelly and P.S. 24 interim acting assistant principal Emanuele “Manny” Verdi would not allow the media to stay.
Just as the meeting was set to begin, Connelly asked to speak with the reporter outside for a moment. No other members were invited to join.
“I spoke with the network head and they said press is absolutely not allowed in these meetings,” Connelly told the reporter in the hallway.
The reporter responded by reminding Connelly and Verdi, who had also joined the conversation, of the chancellor’s regulations, previously presented by another reporter.
“I don’t remember anyone coming to a meeting and showing me documentation, and I didn’t ask you to leave the last meeting because I wasn’t sure if I was allowed to,” Connelly said.
As of press time, P.S. 24 network team leader Robert Cohen had not returned more than a dozen phone calls and voicemails. Network leaders are considered mentors or advisors for their cluster of principals. They do not make finalized decisions.
Until recently, it was assumed that SLT meetings were closed to the public because P.S. 24’s bylaws do not explicitly state that they are open.
However, chancellor’s regulations state: “Notice of SLT meetings must be provided in a form consistent with the open meetings law.”
P.S. 24 posts the date and time of SLT meetings on their school website but does not provide a location of the meeting.
“My feeling is that they are supposed to be open upon request and that they aren’t just walk-in meetings,” SLT president Michael Bruckner said.
“Dr. Connelly made a statement at the start of the meeting that she had checked policy and because it was a decision-making meeting. I assumed she was right, but I think it’s appropriate to request what channel has to be followed. It does need to be clearer.”
The New York open meetings law, in effect since 1977, is formatted to promote transparency and encourage public participation in government.
“Sunlight is the best disinfectant,” said Robert Freeman, director of the Committee on Open Government. “The court of public opinion is significant, so when people are exposed to these types of meetings, good things will keep happening or bad things will stop happening.”
But DOE spokesman David Pena even assumed the meetings were closed.
“Those meetings are not open to the public,” he said initially. “I’ll check, but I was always under the impression that they are closed meetings.”
Several hours later, Pena responded that the meetings are in fact open and subject to the open meetings law.
“Generally, these meetings are open to the public except if an executive session is being held,” he wrote.
The calling of an executive session rather than an open meeting is considered justified if the agenda includes disclosure of facts on these eight areas: matters of public safety, the identity of an informer or law enforcement agent, information relating to a current or future investigation of a criminal offense, discussions of litigation, collective negotiations, otherwise private information of a person or corporation, the preparation or grading of examinations, and the sale or lease of real property.
The Review attempted to get a comment from either Connelly or Verdi but neither returned the nearly a dozen phone calls or voicemails left with their office.
Bruckner said that he believed the press’s removal was just a misunderstanding.
“I don’t think this is against the Review or anything,” Bruckner said. “We’ve had people attend our meeting before, so this wasn’t a standing policy or anything.
“Administrators were shaken up after what happened in Newtown, so safety has to be a big concern for them.”
Bruckner went on to say Connelly has always been very open with parents of the school.
“Dr. Connelly has a great open-door policy,” he said. “Parents are invited to express interest in the school, so they don’t have to wait for Parent’s Day to voice their concerns.”
No one from the DOE could be reached for comment about the alleged violation. But Freeman said there are options.
“If all else fails, there’s an initiation of judicial proceedings. If the court agrees, they award attorney fees. If discussions were held during a private meeting and followed by action, the court has the ability to invalidate the decision.”
He also said the Committee on Open Government may be brought in for an additional penalty.
“The court has the authority to make the board take training. The training is open to the public on the board’s turf. “