Editorial: Strange lessons from East Williston school district

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We wonder what lesson the East Williston school district is trying to teach its students in trying to build a 6-foot fence around the North Side School Elementary school without the approval of the Village of East Williston.

And for that matter what lesson it is offering to other school districts.

A Nassau County Supreme Court judge issued a temporary restraining order in August on the construction of the fence in East Williston at the request of the Village of East Williston.

The village said the fence violates village zoning laws and might impede access to the property in cases of emergencies.

The village also said the school district was subject to village zoning laws.

But the district began construction in August anyway without the village’s approval.

The case between the village and the school is scheduled to be heard on Sept. 25,  with taxpayers footing the bill for both sides.

The school district is seeking to build the fence based on the advice of the Nassau County Department of Homeland Security, the Nassau County Police Department and New York State Insurance Reciprocal to better protect its students.

“The ability to have a few extra minutes where school officials notice an intruder trying to climb a fence to begin a lockdown and call police can be key in the case of danger,” the district quoted Todd Atkin of Homeland Security as saying.

We’ll set aside how crazy the country’s gun laws have to be to make Atkins’ advice sound sensible and address the school district’s behavior.

The school district denies having done anything wrong.

School board President Mark Kamberg recently said public school districts like East Williston only have to file their permits with the state and are not bound by village zoning laws.

“We are in full compliance with the law,” he said. “We apply for our permits through the state at the Education Department as this is a public institution of the state.”

The district backed up Kamberg’s claim in a lengthy PowerPoint presentation also intended to demonstrate the school district’s transparency in approving the project.

But Kamberg’s claim that the district was not bound by government agencies other than the state Education Department was brought into question. By the state Education Department. In May – four months before the board meeting in September.

“Please be advised that the State Education Department’s approval of a school district building project is separate and distinct from any local zoning approval which may still be required,” Rosanne Groff, coordinator of the Office of Facilities Planning, wrote in a letter dated May 7.

To support her case, Groff cited a court decision involving a school district and a town as an apparent example of a school district being required to comply with a municipality’s zoning laws.

“As such,” she added, “the district is advised to resolve any potential local zoning issues related to this project directly with the Village of East Williston.”

Let’s recap with a quick quiz.

“The State Education Department’s approval of a school district building project is separate and distinct from any local zoning approval which may still be required” means:

a. The East Williston School District can do anything it wants once the state Education Department gives the go-ahead on a project.

b. The East Williston School District needs the approval of East Williston village trustees.

The East Williston School District answered a. – that the Education Department’s approval was all that was needed, apparently basing the decision on the state saying local approval “may” be required rather than “is” required.

In a letter she said was intended to clarify her earlier letter, Groff confused things further in September by writing, “My letter was not intended to direct or admonish the District and took no position as to whether or not local zoning approval was required under the circumstances.”

Keep in mind that Kamberg reported at the September board meeting that the district had already spent $58,000 in legal fees.

We know about the two letters from the state from a PowerPoint presentation prepared by the district explaining the project and touting its openness. It presents several instances in which school district officials met with village representatives to discuss their concerns.

Bu the issue of the village having a say over the project does not appear in the actual 20-page PowerPoint deck.

Instead, the information is available as a link online at the bottom of the presentation on the school district’s website titled “For a chronological timeline of events please click here.”

You then need to go through a four-page chronology and click on various links. Groff’s May 7 letter was titled “District Receives letter from Office at Facilities Planning.”

For most, finding this information is kind of like going on an Easter egg hunt, only harder. It certainly does not qualify for the transparency the district was touting, though apparently it was an easier process than endured by the village.

Correspondence found on the website appears to show that neither the school district nor the state Department of Education was as transparent as claimed.

In one instance, East Williston Village Attorney Jeffrey Blinkoff complained to the state education commissioner on March 22 that after the school district refused to submit the proposal to the village, the village filed a Freedom of Information Law request with the state asking for a copy.

The village was told, Blinkoff said, that it had to pay $139 to cover the cost of copying which they paid.

Blinkoff said the village had not received the records as of April 16 only to find out on the state Education Department website that the project had been approved by the state on April 11.

The East Williston school district along with the state Education Department have offered many lessons in this approval process.

We suggest one more. Stop wasting taxpayer money in court, meet with village officials some more and do what you need to do to comply with the village code.

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