Gurney's Inn
January 10, 2018

School Board Freezing Out Public?

Six minutes.

That's all it would have taken to allow two members of the public, who had waited for almost two hours, to ask the Southampton School Board of Education one question each. Instead, the board ignored them at its November 7 work session and adjourned into executive session.

The two members of the audience -- the only two still there at the end of the meeting -- were disappointed but not surprised. Both men said the board has a history of being unresponsive to the public.

The Independent has been trying to get a response from board president Roberta Hunter and Superintendent Nicholas Dyno ever since. Both have ignored repeated requests for a phone comment.

Hunter has responded with vague emails through the district's PR firm, Syntax, that avoid directly answering the questions asked.

James Boyd represents the Southampton Full Gospel Church and its constituency at board meetings. The church is a large property owner within the school district boundaries. Yet Boyd said he has been frozen out by school board members and the administration.

"I received a bias letter from the school board restricting my ability to contact elected school board members individually. These are separate rules as compared to others in the community, similar to the rules for riding in the back of buses and sitting at separate counters, in the Deep South back in the day," Boyd said. He often has items to discuss with the board, making it difficult for him to do his job as the church's representative, he said.

In the latest encounter the district announced it was ridding itself on a number of computers that didn't work. Boyd asked if they could be donated to the church's mission in Haiti. "They were going to throw them away but what may be garbage to them isn't to third-world countries." Boyd has yet to receive a response.

After posing the question to Hunter through Syntax, Marissa Gallo of the PR firm emailed the following response as to why Boyd and Charlie Styler, who was also waiting to speak at the meeting, were ignored.

"Public comment took place at the November 7 Board of Education meeting and the community participated in this portion of the meeting. This is documented via the board minutes posted to the district's website."

Several other official requests for documents under the Freedom of Information Law, made by The Independent, received similar replies. Several times Syntax emailed the actual agenda.

There are two periods set aside for public comment, one early in the meeting is marked "6.01 Public Comments will be heard at this time on agenda items only."

Boyd did speak during this portion, but was stymied because he was told his topic "was not an agenda item." Boyd then sat down with Styler as the board went through the rest of the agenda. Late in the meeting "15.01 Public Comments" was the next item on the agenda. It was at that time the board abruptly adjourned into executive session.

Styler confirmed Boyd's version of the events. "I was there the entire meeting. I had questions. Personally I think there should be a law that the public must be heard." Styler, like Boyd, is sometimes critical of the school board, a possible reason why, like Boyd, he is avoided.

He is interested in filling the empty school board seat and said so publicly, but the board decided not to hold a special election, in essence freezing him out. "I told them I was interested in running. The next thing I knew they said they were happy with what they had."

He also questions whether residents of the Shinnecock Reservation are a legal part of the school district. Roberta Hunter is a member of the Native American tribe.

What was particularly galling, the would-be speakers said, was the meeting seemed to move at a leisurely pace with board members expressing no urgency about the executive session scheduled afterwards.

"They rambled on for one hour and 40 minutes when they used the excuse they had to meet their lawyer for executive session," Boyd commented. "Would it have done so much damage to have the only two people in the audience speak for three minutes each on any topic they wished to raise to the board? 

"At the start and throughout the November 7 Board of Education meeting President Roberta Hunter announced publicly that the board anticipated to vote to move into executive session at a set time to discuss collective bargaining negotiations pursuant to Article 14 of the Civil Service Law," Gallo said via email. "In order to meet with district's counsel. Later in that meeting the board discussed the motion to enter into executive session to handle the aforementioned business."

"If the executive session was so important why didn't the board get to it sooner?" Boyd countered.

He said there is a pattern of the board avoiding comment about controversial issues. "The next meeting, November 21, had no public portion and two board members were absent. Just two days before a major holiday, they take up the topic of transgender lockers and showers. Were they hoping no one was watching? Is that why no public portion for such a controversial topic?" Boyd wondered.

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