In filling a vacancy on its school board, the Skaneateles school district mistakenly focused its energy on doing what it thought it could do rather than what it should.
After a board member resigned over the summer, the district announced it would accept applications from people interested in joining the board until elections come around again in May 2022. And while a board is legally allowed to appoint someone to the fill a vacancy, another option is to hold a special election, a move we have advocated for over the years because the public should always be allowed to decide who fills elected seats.
When it came time to vote on the appointment, the board last week convened in secret to discuss its plans — this following a statement by its attorney meant to assure the public that everything was on the up and up, even though the state Committee on Open Government considers such closed-door executive sessions to be illegal based on past court decisions.
There's some clear disagreement on the legality of this approach, but regardless of whether the law allows closed-door board deliberations on them, there's nothing in the law that requires board seat vacancies be handled like this.
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The key here is that this is an elected seat the board was filling, so the public should be given a more direct opportunity to weigh in on the choice. It's rare for school boards to pass up the opportunity to hand-pick their own members, but when they do this, it shouldn't be secretive in any way. The public should be told who is applying, so the public can provide feedback to the board before it makes a decision.
The school district's defense is that this is how they handle all personnel moves and the law provides for confidentiality to protect privacy of applicants. But the people seeking this appointment are not applying for paid employment. Just as the public is provided the names and backgrounds of candidates running for school board each spring, school districts should make these appointments fully transparent and not treat them as a routine hire.
Even if the school board honestly believes it acted within the law, a better way to proceed would have been to be guided first and foremost by doing the best job on behalf of the public. Residents would have been better served if the board had put the same time and effort into keeping its appointment discussion open rather than looking for justification for keeping it a secret.
The Citizen editorial board includes publisher Michelle Bowers, executive editor Jeremy Boyer and managing editor Mike Dowd.