In the Schools: Grassroots Democracy

According the New York State Committee on Open Government, records that are relevant to the performance of a public officer or employee should be available

   Whether it is a petition in Montauk, pleading with the school board to increase the tax levy to keep class sizes small, or a parent uprising in East Hampton over the ouster of the elementary school principal, democracy in the districts is in good evidence this season, at least in the sense that the aggrieved have exercised their right to speak their minds. Not so among some school board members, who apparently think the position gives them the right, if not the obligation, to conduct important business in secret.
    In the matter of Gina Kraus, the well-liked principal of the John M. Marshall Elementary School, the East Hampton School Board president, George Aman, has repeatedly said  he cannot discuss the reasons behind a pending decision not to grant her tenure. His board, which is not alone in appearing to routinely stretch the state’s open government rules, may be stifled by a misperception that it is forbidden to say anything at all about Ms. Kraus or why she is apparently being returned to a teaching role. “It’s not that we are ignoring or not listening. It’s that we’re publicly forbidden to deal with these issues,” Mr. Aman said. But this, in short, is simply not true.
    According the New York State Committee on Open Government, records that are relevant to the performance of a public officer or employee (which Ms. Kraus certainly is) should be available. By this logic, factual details about Ms. Kraus pertaining to why she should not get tenure or remain on as principal must be disclosed. Put another way, records that shed light on her official duties are a matter of public interest and would not be an invasion of her privacy if shared. Under state law, a discussion of Ms. Kraus’s qualifications and performance can take place in an executive session portion of an otherwise open meeting, but the records and the facts on which the conversation may be based themselves are public.
    At a recent school board meeting, the East Hampton High School library was filled to overflowing with Ms. Kraus’s supporters. But, before they had a chance to speak, Mr. Aman and Richard Burns, the district superintendent, laid the ground rules: The audience could speak, but school officials would have nothing to say in response. Unfortunately, this left an untoward vacuum of the board’s and Mr. Burns’s making.
    There may be perfectly valid reasons for Ms. Kraus’s apparent demotion, but until the school board and the superintendent offer some clue about their thinking, suspicion and bitterness will linger.