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Editorial: Transparency: You’re Doing It Wrong

I would have liked to provide a cover story on the Syosset CSD Meet the Candidates Night held at South Woods Middle School on May 10, however due to our printing schedule, the earliest an article covering that meeting could have appeared would have been this issue. Considering it is now after the vote that the event was meant to inform, covering that meeting in great detail would be of questionable use. However, one important issue dominated the discussion last Thursday night, and I wanted to at least touch on it here: Transparency, or lack thereof.

In response to questions about increasing the transparency of the workings of the school district, both incumbents insisted the board has spirited, lively discussions and debates—only they have them behind the scenes, during executive session. Now, for all we know, they might. But how are we supposed to know—because they said so?

Incumbents strongly implied at the forum that matters must be discussed in executive session for legal and ethical reasons, but that simply isn’t true; one need only look a few miles away to neighboring district Plainview-Old Bethpage to see important items discussed before residents at regular meetings. I would also reference Jericho, but if the forum was any indication, our school board trustees take offense at the very mention of that particular district, so let’s focus on POB for now.

While it’s true that some items are still discussed in executive session, at POB items of district policy and new curriculum initiatives are discussed frequently, often leading to long meetings that don’t break up until 10 or 11 p.m. Like Syosset, virtually all of the POB board’s votes are “yes” votes, however due to their tendency to discuss new issues weeks, if not months, before coming to a vote, you already know the various board members feelings and reservations about any issue long before voting commences.

I’m not holding another school board up as a perfect model of open government; most districts have their issues, and POB is no exception. However, while residents may not always agree with the POB board, they certainly can’t complain that they don’t know them. Yet, even after covering Syosset on and off for three years now, I’ve only just now learned what incumbents Sonia Rutigliano and Alan Resnick sound like; they’ve never spoken at meetings I’ve attended beyond one or two words, if that.

Of course, according to the board, they’re very available- in the supermarket, on the ball field, or any other of a long list of venues that are conspicuously not, and bear little relation to, school board meetings. I suppose the fact that the two incumbents were virtual strangers to me before Thursday May 10, is my fault—clearly, I frequent the wrong supermarkets.

Another closely related topic that was the subject of some debate on May 10 was the district’s Audience to the Public policy, which prevents residents from asking any questions at a meeting unless they concern items that are already on the meeting’s agenda. According to incumbents, this was implemented because too many people with “agendas” would get up to the microphone and commence “ranting.” Once again, I’ve been attending board meetings for years now and I haven’t really seen this. I’ll meet the incumbents halfway and concur there were a few ranters (for a given value of rant) but more often, I saw residents whose main “agenda” was discussing their dissatisfaction with high administrative salaries within the district and asking questions on that topic. The district implemented its new Audience to the Public policy in 2011 after several of these residents’ questions and comments had been quoted in local publications, including this one.

But no, according to board members, it isn’t the fact that an open forum can lead to uncomfortable questions that reveal legitimate areas of resident discontent that led to a restrictive public participation policy, but the fact that a few people rant. Hey, Syosset: is this community, as you constantly say, made up primarily of conscientious parents who really care about their children’s education, or are we a bunch of unstable “ranters” who can’t be trusted to speak in public? You can’t have it both ways.

As I was writing this editorial, the situation with Jeffrey Lafazan’s alleged “theft” of absentee ballot records broke. From the many conversations I’ve had with residents so far, people don’t seem to believe any actual theft of voting materials took place and think this was all a calculated stunt by the district to try to discredit school board candidate Josh Lafazan the day before the election. Of course, maybe the district has a valid side to this story; maybe if some people in the district were actually willing to speak to me and answer my questions, I would know what their side of the story was and I could even share it with you.

However, last minute election scandals aside, now that newcomers Chris DiFilippo and Joshua Lafazan have been elected to the board (and incumbent Sonia Rutigliano voted out), it will be interesting to see how things change going forward. Both candidates ran on a platform of increasing transparency, among other issues, but will they be able to effect change anytime soon? I certainly hope so; it’s not fun covering meetings where no one speaks.