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Syosset Board Members Argue Over Procedure

Meeting gets heated when new trustee Lafazan tries to bring motion to the floor

Things were definitely not business as usual at the Monday, Aug. 6 Syosset Central School District School Board meeting, as arguments over proper procedure stalled progress for nearly half an hour. The meeting started out on a festive note, with performers from the summer stock performance of Annie Jr. lighting up the stage with their renditions of old favorites like Tomorrow and It’s The Hard Knock Life, but the tone changed quickly once the children (and many of their parents) had left the meeting.

On a positive note, during the report of the Superintendent, Dr. Carol Hankin revealed that while fiscal advisors stated that the district’s Tax Anticipation Notes (TANS) interest rate for last year was the lowest they had ever seen, the interest for 2012-13 is even lower: 0.217 percent. According to Hankin, chairman of the board of the New York Municipal Advisors Corporation Bob Kerr stated that Syosset received the lowest interest rate he has ever seen for a school district TAN in over 30 years of business.

During the audience to the public session, several residents asked questions. One resident asked who had authorized the now somewhat infamous May use of the school’s emergency broadcast system on the eve of the school board election. The controversial robocall had accused candidate Josh Lafazan’s father, Jeffrey Lafazan, of the theft of election records. Board president Dr. Michael Cohen answered that there was no new information available at this time. Another resident asked why questions asked during the audience to the public session were not recorded on the meeting minutes archived on the district’s website, to which Hankin responded that the minutes were legally intended to keep track of voting.

“The minutes here are not the same as court minutes. What they have to reflect is the resolutions and the voting,” added Cohen. The president also called the audience’s attention to the fact that there have been some additions to the district’s official audience to the public policy, the full text of which is available both on all printed meeting agendas and the district website.

After audience to the public, new Trustee Lafazan made a motion to have a discussion at the Sept. 24 meeting on the subject of changing all district correspondence from postage to email. First, Cohen tried to move on to voting on the scheduled resolutions without acknowledging Lafazan’s motion, then when Lafazan pressed him, Cohen said he objected to the motion. Lafazan stated that Cohen could not object to the motion and quoted the relevant clause in Robert’s Rules of Order. When Cohen continued to state that he objected to the motion and no discussion of it would be allowed, Lafazan stated that Cohen was “out of order.” Cohen claimed ignorance of the specifics of Robert’s Rules of Order later in the meeting.

When Cohen attempted to move on to voting on the resolutions again, ignoring Lafazan’s motion, Lafazan stated that he would send a letter of complaint to the president of the New York State School Boards Association.

At that, recently re-elected Trustee Alan Resnick requested permission to address the board and community, which Cohen granted. “We’re here to represent the 6,500 students and the community at large, and to provide them with the best education we can. We are not here to further any one person’s agenda, even if he is a recent graduate of this school,” he said.

Resnick went on to say that he hoped Josh would bring some new and youthful ideas to the board, not be “cantankerous and obstinate.” Resnick pointed out that the board is working to change in response to the community’s desires, calling attention to the meeting’s printed agenda, which was much more detailed than previous meeting agendas.

Cohen responded to the conflict by stating that he took his position on the school board just as seriously as he did his professional career as a doctor. “I’m not here to play. I’m not going to be made a mockery of in public and get anonymous emails all day long today…if someone wants to say something to me, just say it and put your name to it,” said Cohen.

The anonymous emails Cohen received were in response to an email that Lafazan had sent to him earlier that day, copying the email for hundreds of residents in the Syosset community in the process. According to Lafazan’s letter, when the new trustee had attempted to contact the district’s director of transportation and the Huntington Bus Company to ask questions about possible cost-saving measures, he received a letter from the district’s attorney that informed him that he had no right to speak for the board outside of very limited contexts. Lafazan stated that he was within his rights to ask questions and was not presuming to speak for the board.

“If your intent was to ensure that I was aware of this rule, a simple phone call or an email to me from you would have sufficed. When you had a lawyer for the school district send me a letter to remind me of this rule, how many hundreds of dollars did it cost the district?” asked Lafazan in his Aug. 6 email. Cohen characterized the letter as a “very brief, totally benign statement.”

Cohen went on to “set the record straight,” explaining that in all his time on the board, despite disagreements with his fellow board members, “Never, ever was anything that we did aired in public. That would be like me watching someone die during heart surgery, then going out and saying ‘Dr. So-and-So killed his patient.’ It’s unconscionable,” Cohen said.

Cohen also explained that after discussion with the district’s attorney, it had been made very clear that board members who attempt to approach anyone to gather information on their own lose the legal protections afforded the board as a whole, thus they do so at their own peril.

Chris DiFilippo, the other new trustee on the board, suggested that the discussion of Lafazan’s motion take place in executive session, but Cohen said that was against the rules. Eventually, DiFilippo seconded Lafazan’s motion, and when it came to a vote, only DiFilippo and Lafazan voted for it.

Hankin, who spent much of the evening explaining points of procedure to the two new trustees, also disapproved of Lafazan’s actions. “Everyone’s had a chance to be heard, but there’s a process; the process has never been what’s happening here tonight,” said Hankin.

Hankin also commented that what Lafazan was doing during the meeting amounted to bullying, but Lafazan told the Syosset-Jericho Tribune after the meeting that he simply wanted his motion acknowledged. “As a board member I have the right to have my voice heard. Had Dr. Cohen simply followed proper procedure, there would have been no acrimony. The motion would have been seconded, and voted down without incident,” said Lafazan.

“I also would like to note that a refusal to consider money-saving alternatives is not in the best interests of the students,” he continued.

After the argument over Lafazan’s motion and a long statement from Cohen to the community members in attendance in the South Woods auditorium, the board voted on resolutions as per usual, with the caveat that both Lafazan and DiFilippo asked several questions, not all of which were welcomed by Hankin and the other board members.

When asked for comment by the Syosset-Jericho Tribune, Cohen responded, “As the Board of Trustees continues to work together for the best interest of the students in this community, we are sure that the board will be professional with mutual respect.”

The meeting also featured a public hearing on changes to the district’s code of conduct, necessitated by The Dignity For All Students Act (DASA.) No questions were asked during the meeting, but the full text of the code was included in the meeting agenda. As Resnick had noted, the agenda featured much more information than it has in the past including details of individual resolutions dealing with personnel and a library weeding log, along with several other documents.

The first day of school in Syosset will be Tuesday, Sept. 4, which will be a full day for all students. The next meeting of the board of education will take place Monday, Sept. 24 at South Woods Middle School at 8 p.m.