Each month, parents and educators gather in a Cranston school auditorium, waiting expectantly for the School Committee to emerge for their meeting. When that will happen is anyone’s guess, as the length of executive session depends on the agenda.
What is clear, is that what goes on behind those closed doors is private.
Or, at least, it’s supposed to be.
Minutes from no fewer than 20 executive session meetings have been posted online using SkyDrive, a document host site from Microsoft. Included in these minutes are confidential deliberations about employee performance, legal strategies and even a lengthy discussion about a student’s IEP and medical needs. All of these topics are delineated under the Rhode Island Open Meetings law as purposes for conducting a closed session meeting.
When reached for comment Tuesday, School Committee Chairwoman Andrea Iannazzi said she had no idea how the minutes became public but said they would take swift action to remove the information.
“I can assure you that we will immediately be turning this information over to the State Police for investigation. Whomever is releasing this information is in violation of the law,” she said.
Twenty-three links were posted to SkyDrive, 20 of which are accessible to readers with whom the files have been shared. The minutes posted are all from April and August, but cover meetings from April of 2003 through August of 2008. When the original files are downloaded, the file information indicates that the author is “cmoretta,” assumedly retired district secretary Catherine Moretta.
There is no evidence, however, to indicate that that author uploaded the files. An administrative assistant in the district explained that executive committee meeting minutes are not sent electronically to anyone, including the School Committee. Committee members can review only hard copies of the minutes, and must do so in the School Administration Building. She said that the only possibility she saw was that Moretta’s computer was hacked, or a third party scanned the minutes in.
The email providing links to these meeting minutes was sent to the Herald anonymously. The source for these links said that the information was circulating among parents, and at least several dozen people had seen the documents. A Google search of verbatim passages from these minutes now yields no results. In other words, the minutes are no longer public, but are still saved as Google Docs on SkyDrive and are available for user-to-user sharing.
Donna Marie Frappier, director of technology for the district, was looking for the source of the information this week and said she planned to contact Google to have the confidential information removed.
The majority of the meeting minutes include private and very frank conversations about personnel. Teachers and administrators, some of whom are still working in the district, are described as “condescending,” “abrasive,” “lousy,” “a punk” and as “one of the worst teachers ever hired in Cranston Public Schools.” Obviously, many positive things are also said, with teachers and administrators being praised for their performance and recommended for multi-year contract approvals.
In an August 2007 meeting, the stenographer quotes former committee member Donna Tocco-Greenaway as saying, “If the committee can’t be forthright behind closed doors in Executive Session, then they are really not doing their jobs.”
In that same meeting, the committee discusses, at length, the special education needs involving a student, who is named, and the requests for services made by his mother, who is also named and has her profession listed. That mother attended the meeting with her legal counsel and discussed the child’s private records.
When Iannazzi heard some of the language being used, she began to question the legitimacy of the minutes. She said she could not remember instances where words like “condescending” were used to describe staff.
“I would really be curious to see if this is actual minutes from executive session or if they were manipulated in some manner,” she said.
Perhaps the most interesting topic in the minutes is ongoing discussion about the Caruolo Act lawsuit filed by the district against the city.
On April 9, 2007, for example, the committee debates hiring an outside consultant to help with the litigation, saying that he has been successful in the past with Caruolo and that if the schools acquire him, the city “will basically be unarmed.”
Also in that discussion, current member Michael Traficante is noted as saying, “that a Caruolo Action is not in the best interest of the taxpayer.”
Later on, during an April 7, 2008 meeting, district CFO Joe Balducci says that they need to speed up the audit process to figure out where the district is financially and what they need from the city.
“He told them that very soon, the district will run out of money,” the minutes state.
Caruolo is a common thread throughout the meeting minutes, and in the final meeting posted, the political implications of a Caruolo appeal are discussed. Former committee attorney Ben Scungio informs the committee that, should they appeal, the decision against the district would be suspended.
“That would get the committee members through the election. If the committee says they will let it stand, they have to live with the lies in the decision. It hurts the committee more politically if they let it sit there.”
Committee counsel Ron Cascione said he could not comment on any of the legal strategy detailed in the minutes.
“Anything we say is confidential. It’s attorney-client privilege,” he said.
Moreover, Cascione, like Iannazzi, questions the validity of the minutes and the motivation for sharing them. He says there is no way of knowing whether the minutes were altered prior to being shared.
“The only reason anyone would want to do this would be to hurt someone. I’m concerned with the credibility of this,” he said.