By REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — After the Niskayuna Board of Education parted ways in April with its superintendent, Susan Kay Salvaggio, many people wondered whether its actions were legal.
Plenty of school district residents had their own opinion on the apparently sudden departure, but students Samir Menon and Darius Irani and parent Priti Irani sought out a legal opinion. They contacted the Committee on Open Government, a unit within the Department of State that offers legal advice regarding the Freedom of Information, Open Meetings and Personal Privacy laws to anyone who asks for it.
On Sept. 4, they received their answer. The opinion is not legally binding and almost certainly will not result in the release of any additional information about Salvaggio’s exit. However, it has already begun to inspire a dialogue about transparency between the board and the Niskayuna School District community.
The committee sent its opinion to school board representatives and the original petitioners, who were eager to discuss the results. The three seized the chance to talk about the committee’s response at the most recent Board of Education meeting, on Sept. 8.
“The question facing us was, does it matter now?” Menon said, describing his thought process when he found out the former superintendent had resigned. The group decided it did matter, especially if an impartial legal opinion would smooth relationships and prevent future friction.
“We should discuss this and we should bring this up, because it’ll help prevent it from happening again,” he said at the meeting.
Three distinct points
The Committee on Open Government made three distinct points within its six-page opinion, each in response to questions from Menon and the Iranis, who explained the results for attendees.
First, it said the district could have violated the Open Meetings Law with a last-minute Board of Education session at which Salvaggio’s resignation was accepted. Second, it said the “goodwill clause” that prevents the board from discussing why Salvaggio was let go is perfectly legal. And finally, it suggested that the best way to prevent more problems between the board and its constituents was for community members to go to meetings and continue to communicate and be vocal about concerns.
At the Sept. 4 meeting, board members took issue with the idea that the Open Meetings Law could have been violated. They said the committee based its opinion solely on information sent by the community members who requested the opinion, such as public meeting minutes.
However, board President Pat Lanotte later said the committee had provided the opportunity for the board to tell its side of the story and provide additional documents when the request was made back in April. At the time, they chose not to do so.
“Anything we were able to say about that situation was said,” she said.
Board members also argued that the meeting in question was exempt from the Open Meetings Law because their attorney had been present throughout.
“You’re allowed to go meet with your counsel, in this case to discuss the actual separation agreement and the terms,” Lanotte said
However, Bob Freeman, executive director of the Committee on Open Government, took issue with that argument.
“The presence of the attorney doesn’t mean anything,” he said. The meeting can be closed only to the extent that the board is seeking legal advice and the attorney is giving legal advice.
“If you ask your attorney, ‘Are the Red Sox going to win this season,’ that’s not a privileged communication,” he added.
He said although those specific conversations can take place under private executive session, the meeting itself should have been subject to Open Meetings Law. He stood by his opinion that the proper procedures weren’t followed.
The opinion is a resource and a starting point for discussion, not a legally binding document. Menon and the Iranis stressed that they didn’t mean to antagonize the board members by bringing it to them, but rather intended to continue, and maybe even resolve, a discussion between school officials and community members about April’s events.
They also asked whether a formal agenda item could be added in the future to discuss the committee’s opinion more fully, and the Board of Education was receptive to the idea. Lanotte encouraged them to submit a formal proposal.
The petitioners found that promising.
“I don’t want to live in a community that stays angry,” Priti Irani said. “Something like that affects school climate.
“It’s not to get anybody to resign,” she added. “We need to figure out what kind of policies will keep this from happening.”
Read the full text of the opinion from the Committee on Open Government here.