Most members of the Port Chester Board of Education have expressed that the investigation into potential misconduct amongst the school board members is over, and they hope the matter will be put to rest.
It became evident that information regarding Superintendent Dr. Edward Kliszus’s contract was somehow leaked to the public during negotiations in Summer 2018, despite all conversations at that point taking place in executive session or through private emails. In response, the board launched a controversial investigation into potential misconduct amid its own members at a July 3 meeting.
According to New York State Committee on Open Government Executive Director Robert Freeman, there is nothing inherently illegal about sharing contract negotiation details outside of executive session. However, the board has the right to confidentiality in those cases.
Still, at that July meeting the board hired Margaret Leibowitz as an independent investigator. After spending $2,000 for her services, she issued a report of her findings on Aug. 27. However, the Board of Education never collectively read the report until an executive session on Feb. 27 of this year.
Because the case was not criminal, the investigator had no subpoena powers. Therefore, board members Anne Capeci and Thomas Corbia, who were avidly against the measures from the start, refused to participate.
Thus, the probe did not include all parties involved. However, Kliszus announced at a Jan. 15 meeting that the investigation is over, and all involved past and present board members “are in good standing.”
“I asked the attorney what a concise statement to the public would be,” Kliszus explained. “He said ‘everyone is in good standing’ would be an accurate reflection.”
At the Jan. 15 meeting, members of the public urged the school board for clarity regarding the investigation results. While requesting public access to the investigator’s report, they implied the lack of transparency sends a dubious message to the community.
The Westmore News filed a Freedom of Information Law request for the report on Jan. 4. On Feb. 28, this publication was provided a redacted version.
What the report says
Separated into three sections, Introduction, Background and Findings, Leibowitz’s report describes the events that led to the misconduct investigation.
From July 18 to Aug. 21, she interviewed 12 people involved in the situation: three current school board members, one former school board member, Kliszus, two administrators, a district employee, a former board counsel and three district parents. Throughout the report, these “witnesses” are not mentioned by name, but instead referred to as witnesses A through K.
Because Capeci and Corbia openly refused to participate, it seems Board of Education President Carolee Brakewood, Vice President Christopher Wolff and member Lou Russo are the three current school board witnesses. Former board member James Dreves was an active member when contract negotiations began last year and is presumably also a witness.
According to the report, on June 15, Kliszus had District Clerk Cathy Maggi send the Board of Education, Board Counsel, Deputy Superintendent Joseph Durney, and then-Assistant Superintendent for Business Maura McAward his “weekly update,” which was called a “Privileged & Confidential Memorandum.” It was sent to their district affiliated emails. In that document, he included six proposed items for his employment contract.
Separately, the parties also received a prepared agenda for the upcoming school board meeting on June 19, which included a resolution to approve his contract requests but did not detail what those requests were.
Maggi also hand-delivered copies of these materials to Capeci, Corbia and Dreves at their homes as per their request.
From June 17-19, witnesses I, J, and K, “members of the public,” had communicated with witnesses B, C and D. However, it seems the content of those messages were redacted from the report.
On the night of the June 19 meeting, witnesses A and B, presumably current school board members, received another message from witness J.
“In those text messages, Witness J copied and pasted a [text] message originating from a person unknown to witness J that stated, ‘Mutiny if raises and lifetime benefits gets passed,’” Leibowitz’s report states. “During the public Board meeting, witness K emailed the Board members about ‘Raises/Lifetime Benefits’ to protest the approval of ‘lifetime benefits’ for Dr. Kliszus.”
Because the specific details of the superintendent’s contract requests were only expressed in the “Privileged & Confidential Memorandum,” it seems the only way community members could have known about them was if a school official shared that document. Therefore, at the next meeting on July 3, the Board of Education launched the probe.
What the report doesn’t say
Roughly 70 percent of the report’s Findings section was redacted.
Though the superintendent announced in January that all Board of Education members were in good standing, there is nothing in the publicly available version of the report that corroborates the sentiment. However, Kliszus did say the school attorney signed off on the statement.
The only new information the final section discloses is that witnesses A, B and D through H “denied disclosing Dr. Kliszus’ confidential contract proposals to members of the public prior to the public board meeting on June 19.”
It indicates that those were the parties with access to the memorandum, and notably, witness C was not included in that list.
Officially sworn into the Board of Education on July 3, current board member Lou Russo was not an active trustee in June.
When the school district disclosed the report, it justified that some sections were redacted by citing Section 87(2)(g) of the Freedom of Information Law.
That section states that the School District may deny access to records or portions of records that are from an outside-agency as long as the material is not: statistical or factual tabulations or data, instructions to staff that affect the public or final agency policy or determinations.
Therefore, the report includes factual information while redacting segments that are characterized as opinions, ideas and advice because the district claims no determinations were made in light of the investigation.
However, it seems policy changes may be a different story.
Investigation inspires policy change
At the most recent Board of Education meeting on Tuesday, Mar. 12, the school board approved a large amendment to its pre-existing ethics policy.
Before they agreed to the policy changes in a consensus, President Brakewood read a statement from their attorney.
“The investigation opened the district’s eyes to some infirmities in its protocols and procedures and provided the district with the opportunity to revisit the critical issue of how to ensure confidentiality with respect to confidential materials with which the board members come into contact,” she read. “The investigation has led the district to take a hard look at its protocol. By amending this policy, all board members are on notice of what constitutes confidential information and the ramifications of disclosure.”
The amended ethics policy nearly doubles the pre-existing guidelines established in 1993 by adding an entire section on confidentiality requirements for board members.
Essentially, it states that it will be considered “official board member misconduct” if a board member discloses confidential matters that imperil public safety, discusses proposed or current litigation, student records, proposed property acquisition, matters related to the promotion, hiring or dismissal of an employee or matters subject to attorney-client privilege.
While stating that the report was the underlying reason that this policy change was happening, Capeci said that while she was willing to approve it, she thought it was an overreach based on facts that were never proven. After all, Kliszus said no one was determined at fault during the investigation.
Corbia, while also agreeing to accept the policy revisions, said he thought the whole situation should have been avoided.
“This put a dark cloud on what our jobs are here for. This should have been handled a lot differently,” he said, implying it should not have become a public issue. “I want this to be the last time I make comments on it. I’m hoping we can now put this all behind us and finally move forward.”
In response, Russo chimed in to say he’s also happy to put the matter behind them and hopes the policy will be a new start for the Board of Education. However, he put a more optimistic spin on the situation while deeming it an “evaluation” as opposed to an “investigation.”
“I don’t have the same opinion, in terms of it being a dark cloud. I think it was a reflective type of process that resulted in good feedback and changes. I think we come out stronger for it,” Russo said. Later, he continued, “I think people are focusing on the word investigation. It was an evaluation of processes and how we do things and now the result of that is making us stronger going forward.”
Brakewood agreed and made similar remarks. She referred to the investigation as a “shining light” illuminating both their problems and how they can do things better. That was her main intention for voting in favor of the investigation in the first place, she said.
Most of the board members essentially agreed that not only did the investigation inspire policy changes, but there was intent to make policy changes throughout the process.
According to Section 87(2)(g) of the Freedom of Information Law, intra-agency materials implicating school district policy should not be withheld from the public.
The Westmore News requested and received the investigation report before these policy changes were made. Therefore, this publication has filed another Freedom of Information Law request for the entire report without redactions.