Too much talk? Call the police

Taconic Hills Board of Ed doesn’t want to hear union lawyer

CRARYVILLE – The district superintendent summoned police to a Taconic Hills Board of Education meeting last month. The reason for the call was that a member of the audience had not heeded the instructions of the board president. That incident was followed by a letter from the superintendent saying that the audience member, a lawyer representing two employee associations in the district, would be arrested if she returned to school grounds without permission. The superintendent now says his letter was misunderstood.

At the December 22 school board meeting, Pamela Melville, a lawyer and labor relations specialist affiliated with the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT)union attempted to speak to the board about some employee grievance actions by the two employee associations at the school.

Before she had finished speaking, Board President Ronald Morales interrupted her, telling her that the board would read the packet of information she had prepared on the matters. And when she continued to speak about the matters, Mr. Morales asked schools Superintendent Mark Sposato to call the police.

Dr. Sposato left the board room and was absent for 15 minutes. Eventually a police officer did arrive, but Ms. Melville had already left the building.

Ms. Melville was treated in a similar manner at the board’s August meeting, although the police were not called at that time.

In a letter to Ms. Melville dated January 3, 2011, Dr. Sposato described her behavior at the meeting “disruptive, belligerent, condescending, disrespectful… inexcusable [and] unprofessional.” The letter said she could not return to school property for any reason, even for public meeting, without his permission. The letter says that if she failed to adhere to this restriction, she the district would seek to have her charged with trespassing on school property.

Robert  Freeman, who heads the Committee on Open Government for the New York Department of State, said that under the state Open Meetings Law to anyone, even a NYSUT representative, has the right to attend a school board meeting without giving advance notice, although the board of education is not required to allow the public to speak. If the board does permit members of the public to speak “it should adopt reasonable rules that insure everyone is treated equally,” said Mr. Freeman.

Members of the school board say there is no time limit established for people who speak to the board.

In a subsequent e-mail, Dr. Sposato sought to clarify his position stated in his letter to Ms. Melville, writing: “It has come to my attention, per various statements in the media, that I have denied NYSUT representative Pam Melville access to the school district. This is simply not true. In fact, in a communication to Ms. Melville from our school attorney, Kris Lanchantin, on January 6, 2011, Ms. Melville was specifically and directly informed that all she needed to do was to send me an e-mail notifying me of her need to be on campus, and her appearance would be acknowledged. Ms. Melville has not sent such a communication, but the offer still stands.”

The Taconic Hills Board Education Vice President George Langonia, Jr. said the board has asked Ms. Melville, to give advance notice of her trips to the school so that they can have their attorney present. “She uses our open forum system as a platform to make presentations for the union because we don’t have council there. That’s not what public forum is for.” he said.

At the December 22 meeting, Board President Ronald Morales told Ms. Melville much the same thing, saying, “We’re not required to have you there. It’s not appropriate.”

This week Superintendent Sposato offered an explanation for Mr. Morales’ position. “For support staff it’s optional for the board to hear their side of story,” he said. “They are not obligated by contract to meet with people to talk with individuals on grievances.”

Asked about his call to the police, he said, “I was just acting on behalf of the board.” He said the board had decided to discuss a grievance in executive session and had told him “it did not require her attendance.”

“She was told not to talk to people about it” he said, referring to the union grievances.

“Who made the decision not to invite the union?” asked Ms. Melville in a recent interview. She said the December 22 meeting was the first time the board “did not invite us in to executive session.” She said that was a change from past procedures.

“That’s the kind of conduct the union has to address. It’s something everybody knows about but nobody talks about. It’s like a deep family secret everybody knows about but won’t address,” she said.

She said her purpose in speaking at the meeting was “to address items on the agenda for support of the staff association.” She believes that superintendent’s conduct violates the unions’ contracts, but she said some staff and faculty members have asked the union not to file grievances “because they fear retaliation.”

Ms. Melville, who also represents faculty and staff at the Hudson, Chatham, and New Lebanon School Districts, said she intends to “file an improper practice charge” against the Taconic Hills Central School District “for interfering with the union’s work.”

Mr. Langonia, the board vice president said of the situation, “We deal with [union] grievances every day now.” He said that board has asked that the board’s attorney be present when these matters are discussed. Ms. Melville, he said, “refused to abide by what our board president asked her to do. We don’t have an issue with her being in the building; she’ll be at the table like always.”

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