New Suffolk adopts first-ever policy for obtaining school documents

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05/15/2015 3:00 PM |
New Suffolk Elementary School principal tk, center, discussing the district's new policy of releasing public documents at Tuesday's meeting. (Credit: Jen Nuzzo)

New Suffolk Elementary School principal Christopher Gallagher, center, discussing the district’s new policy of releasing public documents at Tuesday’s meeting. (Credit: Jen Nuzzo)

Following an excessed teacher’s recent requests for documents, the New Suffolk school board has adopted its first-ever public information policy.

During the board’s meeting Tuesday, principal Christopher Gallagher recommended that the district require people who seek school documents through the state’s Freedom of Information Law to fill out a standard request form. 

Dr. Gallagher said he believes the form will help streamline the process of releasing documents, for which the district has received a significant number of requests in recent months.

“Most school districts have a procedure,” he said. “We lack a procedure.”

The decision comes one week after district curriculum writer Martha Kennelly, who is appealing the school board’s April 16 decision to excess her position effective June 30, asked the school board to explain why certain statements had been omitted from the minutes for the its special meeting on March 17.

In particular, Ms. Kennelly said, those minutes do not include a statement she made about a meeting she had in the summer of 2013 with board president Tony Dill and Holly Plymale, who was then the district’s head teacher. At that meeting, Ms. Kennelly says, she told Mr. Dill and Ms. Plymale of her intention to return if there was an opening in the district.

Ms. Kennelly had been on special assignment for the past 10 years at the Mid East Suffolk Teacher Center in Ridge. The district continued to pay her salary while she worked at the center, but was reimbursed for that money by the state. She has said her salary last year was $115,000 last year.

Teachers on special assignment at the center — which provides professional development, technology training and resources to Suffolk County educators — remain contracted faculty members in their home districts, enabling them to return to their previous jobs if desired, or if the center’s program encounters budget cuts.

Because Ms. Kennelly chose to end her special assignment and return to the school starting last September, after Ms. Plymale resigned, the district is no longer being reimbursed for her salary, which had contributed to a 21 percent decline in revenue and caused a $160,000 budget gap, Mr. Dill has said.

He’s also said Ms. Kennelly didn’t contact the district about her decision until after the 2014-15 budget vote last May.

During the public comment portion of Tuesday’s school board meeting, Ms. Plymale also refuted Ms. Kennelly’s claim that she informed the school of her intent to return.

“I don’t recall that ever happening,” Ms. Plymale said. “I recall a conversation and meeting, but never her telling me that she was coming back.”

Discussions have become heated during recent school board meetings between Ms. Kennelly and Mr. Dill over certain public documents. Tuesday night was no different.

When Ms. Kennelly asked if the district had revised its minutes to include her omitted statements, Mr. Dill said, “We are not going to make those changes.”

“That’s OK,” Ms. Kennelly said. “I have a recording.”

“It’s not an official recording,” Mr. Dill responded.

Her requests for information, however, are noted in the minutes of the May 13 meeting, Mr. Dill said, at which she read the statements in question verbatim.

Also at last week’s meeting, Ms. Kennelly asked why the district lumped all faculty salaries together in the budget proposal instead of separating salaries for full-time staff and teacher assistants, which is how the district had formatted its expenses for the past few years.

Mr. Dill has said it wasn’t uncommon for the district to change the way the budget is presented to voters, as well as state officials, and said the recent format change was made at the request of the teachers.

“Why are you hesitating?” she asked as Mr. Dill responded to her question about salary increases.

“I’m not hesitating,” he said. “I’m telling you the answer. If you don’t like it, I’m sorry.”

“I’m sure you’re going to be able to find the information because you’re very good at that,” he continued. “It will be filed. We don’t skirt the law, but we’d like to see you do some work.”

When asked by a reporter if she believes the new FOIL policy was created as a result of her requests, Ms. Kennelly declined comment.

Frank Blangiardo of Cutchogue, who has attended school board meetings as Ms. Kennelly’s attorney, told Dr. Gallagher Tuesday that he was “taken back” that he recommended the school board take action on a public information policy.

“You’re a principal, but you’re making recommendations to the board?” Mr. Blangiardo asked.

Mr. Dill has said Dr. Gallagher, who was hired April 6, is the district’s principal and acts as its chief administrative officer. A waiver to grant him a superintendent title is pending with the state, Mr. Dill said.

The process of obtaining a waiver from the state to allow New Suffolk’s principals to also serve as superintendent has been used for previous superintendent hires, Mr. Dill said, adding that Dr. Gallagher won’t receive additional compensation for the added title of superintendent.

In addition to approving the FOIL request form, school board members also appointed school secretary Maria Gizzo as the district’s public information officer. The position doesn’t include any compensation, Dr. Gallagher said.

When asked by a reporter if the new policy was related to Ms. Kennelly’s requests, Mr. Dill said, “That’s not the case.”

“We should have done this years ago,” he said. “We should have, but didn’t because it wasn’t a problem.”

Ms. Kennelly’s appeal of the school board’s decision to excess her position is currently pending with the state.

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