Thursday, August 23, 2007

Board of Ed Upholds its Anonymous Letter Policy

By KELLY CAMPBELL

When anonymous letters arrive in the post office box reserved for Northport-East Northport School District Board of Education members or administrators, Clerk Christa McCulloch follows the Board of Education’s policy and throws them away without further review.

After a lengthy discussion at its July 2 meeting, the Board voted 4-2 to continue that policy, number 8346, which reads, "Anonymous communications will be ignored and destroyed, and will not be processed in accord with the procedures contained in this policy.” Those procedures include marking the document with a “received” stamp and recording the date. Trustees Denise Summers Mumm and Phil Fortuna voted no.

Board President Arlene Munson supported upholding the policy stating, “I can’t contact or protect Mr. or Mrs. Anonymity.”


Policy 8346 has been the topic of several discussions at Board meetings this past year but has become seemingly intertwined with the district’s “whistleblower” policy meant to address how district employees can anonymously report alleged misdeeds by their fellow employees.
In October, during a controversial discussion about extra pay assignments for teachers, Trustee Denise Summers Mumm said that a teacher who had wished to apply for an available position, but who felt intimidated by other teachers who had held the position previously, had written an anonymous letter to the Board that Trustee Mumm wanted the rest of the Board to see.
At that time, Trustee Steve Meyerowitz said that the Board had a policy regarding anonymous letters that he wished to stick to. “I would request a copy of that before we start spreading around the content of anonymous letters,” he said.
Trustee Mumm said that she felt the Board should review the policy to ensure that pertinent information is not going unread simply because a letter-writer is nervous about their career or children’s education being affected.
School District Attorney John Gross of the law firm Ingerman Smith stated that he would have his staff research the subject of anonymous mail received by the Board and the Board’s responsibility if a consequence occurs arising from the anonymous mail. At a meeting the next month, Mr. Gross reported that Ingerman Smith deemed the Board’s policy legally adequate.
At the Board’s June 18 meeting, Trustee Mumm inquired about the anonymous letter policy as it relates to the “whistleblower” policy recommended last year by the district’s independent auditor for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2006, David Tellier of Melville-based certified public accountant firm Callaghan Nawrocki. At the Board’s October 16, 2006 meeting, he recommended that an anonymous hotline be set up and/or a P.O. Box for whistleblowers. While the P.O. box has been set up, an anonymous telephone hotline has not as of yet.
Superintendent Marylou McDermott said that the auditors recommendation of providing ways to allow civil servants to report inappropriate financial activity protects confidentiality rather than anonymity.
All non-anonymous letters to the Board of Education automatically appear in the Board’s meeting agenda correspondence section. In addition, if a parent complains about a teacher, the teacher automatically is made aware of the complaint, as per the contract with the United Teachers of Northport. No anonymous calls or letters are accepted in these cases, either, according to another policy, #9360 dealing with Board of Education meeting, in the section addressing "Certain Remarks Out Of Order.” It reads that, "No person shall present orally, or discuss at any Board meeting, charges or complaints against individual employees except as requested by the Board sitting in Executive Session. All such charges and complaints shall be presented in writing, shall include appropriate information, shall indicate the efforts taken with district staff to resolve the issue before bringing it to the Board, and background information signed by the person forwarding the same."
The Board does not have a policy that specifically addresses anonymous e-mails and at a contentious August 2006 meeting at which members of the community attempted to persuade the Board to reconsider its decision to rename the Laurel Avenue administration building the William J. Brosnan Administration Building, Board President Munson brought up a malicious anonymous e-mail sent to the Board of Education that she alleged had been written by a leader of the opponents, who were calling themselves UFSD #4 Alumni and Taxpayers United, or by someone associated with them. The ATU denied sending the e-mail or knowing who did. No Board members objected at that time to the anonymous e-mail letter being mentioned.

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