For evidence that the East Hampton School Board has made a serious commitment to reversing years in which the public and press were excluded from the decision-making process, one need look no further than the meetings scheduled to prepare the 2013-14 budget. Work sessions are to continue more or less every other week until the May 21 vote. Inviting the public, and especially parents, to look on as the details are worked out began last year.
The long slog began last night in the district office on Long Lane with the presentation of the first draft of the coming year’s spending plan. A regular school board meeting will take place on Jan. 22, and the next budget work session on Jan. 29. Anyone can attend these meetings, although public comment will be permitted only during the regular meetings. Nominating petitions for school board candidates are due on April 22.
The new openness stands in sharp contrast to the way East Hampton school budgets were written in earlier years — and to the norm in other districts. Time was not so long ago that the budgets would be dumped, fully formed, on the public only a week or so before the required May vote. Historically, the unwarranted — and under the State Freedom of Information Law illegal — secrecy left parents and taxpayers without an opportunity to understand what they were being asked to approve.
School costs are the largest items on local tax bills for most property owners. Whether or not board members, administrators, and staff enjoy working in front of an audience, the law requires it. There is still some distance to go in assuring that the East Hampton School Board fully meets its obligations as outlined in the Freedom of Information Law. That said, its commitment to opening up the budget process is worth acknowledging.