Saturday, January 26, 2013

Access to Information - DENIED!

Why is the Potsdam Central School District refusing to release to the public a document deemed public by the New York State Committee on Open Government (NYS COOG)?  Repeated requests to administration for a preliminary strategic budget plan discussed at the December 18th Board of Education Finance Committee meeting have been denied.  Three separate requests for this plan were made by this author, all of which were either explained away or denied.  Consultation with the NYS COOG regarding public access to this type of document confirmed that the preliminary strategic budget plan should be made public.

Development of the Potsdam Central School spending plan for 2013-14 has been on-going for months.  At the November 29th meeting of the PCS Board of Education (BOE) Finance Committee, budget discussions projected a $1.5 million dollar deficit for the next school year.  Several documents are listed on the agenda for the committee's meeting, all of which are accessible to members of the public.  According to the budget calendar, a strategic budget plan to close the gap between revenues and expenses was to be discussed at the next meeting.

The online agenda for the December 18th meeting of the BOE Finance Committee (postponed from December 13th) listed two documents, Finance Committee Goals and Preliminary Strategic Budget Plan.  After the agenda was posted, the Goals document was accessible online, but the Preliminary Strategic Budget Plan was not.  This is not unusual, because administration likes to wait until the actual meeting to reveal that type of information.  This author expected to be given a copy of the document at the meeting as has been done in the past.  It wasn't made available.

During the course of the meeting, under #3. Strategic Budget Plan on the agenda, all of the principals and department heads were asked to present to committee members possible personnel and program cuts.  It was evident that school personnel at the meeting were following along with a document which could be viewed on their computers.  The Board of Education has adopted paperless access to documents and all have a computer at meetings, as do our school leaders. 

After the meeting, this author asked Superintendent Brady for a copy of the document.  The response was that he didn't want the information to be reported before the holidays because school staff had not been informed of the reductions.   On January 10th, because the document had still not been "unlocked" on the online agenda, I asked the Records Access Clerk, via e-mail, for the Preliminary Strategic Budget Plan.  The response that I received was that "the Preliminary Strategic Budget Plan document is a working document of the Board and there (sic) is not available to the public at this point."

 Having had some experience with working documents and the Freedom of Information law, I went to the New York State Committee on Open Government (COOG) website, found their opinion on working documents and sent a specific request for the document to the school district along with a copy of the COOG opinion.  A few days later, I received an official letter denying access to the document, citing the advice of counsel.

Still convinced that this document should be available to the public, I sent an email to Robert Freeman, Executive Director of the New York State Committee on Open Government, for an opinion.  I included a copy of the agenda and the denial letter.  The response, from Camille S. Jobin-Davis, Assistant Director of the COOG, re-affirmed my belief.  Her response stated

"This will confirm our opinion that a document such as the one that you describe, a preliminary strategic budget plan, would be required to be made available at least in part pursuant to FOIL and according to the legal analysis set forth in the following advisory opinion: "

In past years, the strategic budget plan documents have been made available.  What is being hidden?  It is unacceptable that this year's preliminary strategic budget plan document has not been made available to the public.  This is not just this author's opinion, it is the law.

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