LAKE GEORGE — A group of people opposed to the decision by the Lake George Board of Education to eliminate the junior-senior high school vice principal position is suing the district to block the move.
The lawsuit, which was filed Friday in state Supreme Court in Warren County, seeks to preserve the job of Vice Principal Cody Conley. The board in March voted to eliminate the position and hire an interim director of curriculum, instruction and support services.
The plaintiffs allege that the board acted in violation of the state’s Open Meetings Law by having discussions to change the administrative structure in executive session, and they contend that the position is needed to handle disciplinary and other issues.
School officials deny they held any discussions improperly and said the change was necessary to strengthen the curriculum and improve academic achievement.
The lawsuit claims that board members held meetings behind closed doors to discuss eliminating the position before any public discussion took place. The district on Jan. 26 announced its plan to restructure the administration.
In addition to the Open Meetings Law issue, the plaintiffs said the superintendent or board did not seek input from school principals, teachers or staff and that the position is necessary. The vice principal position was reinstated in the 1990s, during a period when the district was dealing with student behavioral and substance abuse issues. The duties also include handling attendance, coordinating student support, monitoring social media, training teaching assistants, coordinating testing and serving as a liaison to law enforcement, according to court documents.
The plaintiffs say the school board prematurely ended public comment on the issue at its March 13 meeting after only 45 minutes when there over 150 people in attendance.
Among the plaintiffs are former Lake George school board member Clark Perkett, Lake George Steamboat Company Vice President Patricia Dow, Lake George Park Commission Executive Director David Wick and Laura Cocozza, the wife of Lake George Junior-Senior High School Principal Francis Cocozza.
Many of the plaintiffs, including Perkett and Dow, are members of a group called Lake George United for Education, which was created in early March to oppose the proposed cut.
The lawsuit names the Lake George Board of Education and Superintendent Lynne Rutnik as defendants. Attorney Greg Teresi is representing the plaintiffs. Teresi said the board had an obligation to discuss and deliberate both administrative decisions in a public setting.
“I think there’s somewhat of a sense in the North County that these laws are arbitrary, that there’s no need to follow them. I’ve got a laundry list of clients that disagree with that and want to hold the board accountable,” he said.
Teresi said he wants the board to have a public discussion of the issue. He has filed Freedom of Information Law requests to find out the basis behind the decision to restructure the administration. His clients have spoken to school board members, who say they supported the move because the superintendent said it is the best decision for the school.
“Why?” Teresi asked. “We live in a world where at least the public is asking that elected officials explain to them why they’re doing things. I don’t think this is an unrealistic request at all.”
Teresi said he has filed a show cause motion asking a judge to make a decision by June 22 to prevent the school district from eliminating this position at the end of the school year on June 30.
“We’re making the argument to the court that there’s irrevocable harm that could be done as a result of everything that’s going on in society with school shootings, mental health issues,” he said.
School officials have said that other employees will pick up Conley’s duties. Teresi said parents were told the counselors will pick up the slack, but they already have a full plate.
“Who is going to take care of these kids who might have mental health issues or bullying issues in their lives, or the cornucopia of issues that teenage kids may have?” he said.
Teresi said he is taking the case pro bono because he lives in Lake George and feels passionately about the issue. His fiance is a teacher who went to Lake George schools.
Teresi said he did not see an issue with Laura Cocozza being a party to the lawsuit. She came to him as a taxpayer and concerned parent.
Rutnik said in written responses to questions that she and the Board of Education would prefer to focus on the achievements of the upcoming graduating class.
“We are disappointed that once again, a group that calls itself ‘united for education’ is choosing to devote this much effort to something that takes our time and focus away from the students we serve while at the same time encumbering a great deal of district resources and taxpayer dollars,” she said. “To once again have this group hijack the headlines around legal threats rather than promote the work of our students and faculty — that they claim to be supporting — is shortsighted and disheartening at best.”
Rutnik denies the allegation that the staffing changes were improperly discussed in executive session. She said she does not believe that the district could be prevented from making this change.
Rutnik said the change was necessary to support a “comprehensive K-12 instructional program” and support teachers to implement state standards and ensure students’ safety and social and emotional well-being.
Rutnik said Conley has accepted a one-year position as a special education teacher at Lake George Elementary School.
Robert Freeman, executive director of the Committee on Open Government, said Wednesday that he believes the discussion about the administrative reorganization should not have occurred in executive session.
“When the discussion involves a position, irrespective of who might hold it, there’s judicial precedent that there is no basis for conducting an executive session in that circumstance,” he said.
Freeman said he believes if the substantial deliberations in executive session are followed by an action taken by the board, the court has the discretion to invalidate the action.