Carrie Lusk spends her free time reading open meeting laws: pages of legalese that say how organizations like school boards are supposed to run their meetings and which parts have to be open to the public.
Lusk has two kids and a job. It’s not like she just has time on her hands, but back in January, the Harpursville school district made some big, sudden decisions. The news came home in a letter.
“It said, basically, that they were going to be eliminating our [elementary] vice principal’s position, and the [elementary] principal,” Lusk says.
One elementary school principal fired and the other reassigned. The explanation: The district is restructuring after a few administrators retire this year. Lusk and some other parents didn’t want that to happen. They claim that decision and a whole list of others happened behind closed doors.
“We’ve been finding that in a lot of rural school districts, this is what happens,” Lusk says. “A superintendent and board tend to run things, and we don’t know what’s going on.”
Suddenly what was a debate about principals became something else entirely. The parents have taken an interest in the minutiae of school board business. They want definitions for terms on the agenda. At a recent school board meeting, a community member interrupted and demanded a definition for an obscure piece of school board jargon.
With their questions, some recent meetings have lasted four hours. Now the activists are suing the district. Carrie Lusk says it’s all new for her.
“I’ve never really gotten involved in the governing of our school,” she says. “I never had to. I’ve always been very pleased, never had any concerns. What I’ve learned over the last three months is that we really needed to be involved, and we needed to ask questions.”
How much does a community need to know about its school? According to New York open meetings laws, not as much as they might like. Closed-door sessions are allowed when a board talks about individual employees – hiring, firing, and job performance for example. Boards don’t even have to allow public comment at meetings.
Harpursville school board president Joe Burns says there’s good reason for closed-door sessions, even though these are public employees.
“I wouldn’t want my boss just dumping anything out there about myself,” he says. He adds that in his mind, the same goes for school employees.
Burns won’t say much about the elementary principal decision. He says it’s school reorganization. He does insist that he’s for community involvement – just no free-for-alls.
“The part I don’t like is when they start booing at us and stuff,” he says. “That’s not in very good taste.”
Burns says the community needs to respect the system.
“We elect people, and we do not always like the things they’re doing,” he says, “But you elect people to do the jobs, and you have to respect them for what they’re doing in the positions.”
Which brings us to today’s election. In Harpursville, there’s one open school board seat.