Stefanik, Mayfield schools dispute continues

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The Mayfield Central School District issued a statement Wednesday saying that a Freedom of Information Law request sent to the district on Feb. 3 by U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, was “inadvertently overlooked in the recipient’s email inbox” and the district is now working to comply with an appeal filed by the congresswoman Monday.

Stefanik wrote in a social media Facebook post Wednesday that “ … not responding to a FOIL request is ILLEGAL,” but New York state’s FOIL law does allow local governments and school districts to be in compliance, as long as they answer an appeal within the 10-day time limit, which the district indicated in its statement that it will do.

“Upon receiving the second request, the district immediately began working to gather the required pieces, as allowed by law,” reads the MCSD statement Wednesday, written by district spokeswoman Betsy DeMars.

The tiny Fulton County school district has been engaged in a public feud with the third ranking Republican leader in the U.S. House of Representatives since Jan. 29 when Stefanik claimed, without any evidence, in a news release that the district had “wrongfully fired”, and or placed on paid administrative leave, a district pre-K teacher for allegedly posting criticism of New York state’s mask mandate for schools onto social media.

On Wednesday in a social media post to Facebook titled “CC: Mayfield School Officials”, Stefanik continued blasting Mayfield school district leaders with allegations regarding the pre-K teacher and the continuing controversy, stating: “Silencing parents is shameful. Suspending a teacher for criticizing a mask mandate is wrong.”

MCSD officials in turn have called Stefanik’s accusations false — in that no teacher was ever fired — and wrong and misleading in that the pre-k teacher briefly placed on paid leave was not being disciplined due to her having expressed any opinions on social media.

MCSD’s statement Wednesday continued to refute comments from Stefanik.

“Please know that the lack of response from the district was not a ‘refusal’ as Ms. Stefanik calls it in her statement,” wrote DeMars. “It is, however, a regrettable oversight that the district is working to quickly correct.”

On Wednesday Stefanik’s staff provided to the Leader-Herald screen shots that indicate her office sent the first FOIL request to [email protected] on Feb. 3 at 9:27 p.m.

The email included a PDF version of Stefanik’s FOIL request which requested electronic copies of all records generated after Jan. 23 pertaining to the placement of a redacted person’s name on administrative leave and all communications between district officials regarding the matter, including any records regarding “violations of Mayfield Central School District’s Technology Services Equipment and Use Policy” and any records contemplating any staff violations of MCSD’s regulations regarding district computer, email and internet use.

Neither Stefanik nor any MCSD official has ever publicly confirmed the identity of the school district pre-K teacher, Carey Lizzio, who was briefly placed on paid leave before being allowed to return to teach in her classroom approximately a week later.

ABRUPT ENDING TO MAYFIELD SCHOOL BOARD MEETING

Carey Lizzio, along with her husband New York state Trooper Sam Lizzio, were both signed-in as attendees of Tuesday night’s Mayfield Central School District School Board meeting, which ended abruptly before a public comment period, for non-agenda items. One non-agenda item many people in attendance wanted to speak about was the topic of Carey Lizzio’s paid suspension, and the district’s decision to reinstate her to her classroom. After coming out of a closed-door-executive-session, school officials said anyone not wearing a mask in compliance with the still ongoing New York state school building mask mandate would need to wear one, or leave.

After Mayfield School Superintendent Christopher Harper handed out masks, there was a dramatic back and forth between district officials and a man who identified himself as Mayfield resident Jordan Howard.

Howard refused to wear a mask, called into question the legal power of Gov. Kathy Hochul’s mask mandate for schools and said he was disabled under the provisions of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. He invoked Stefanik by name, telling the school board he would let “Elise Stefanik know what you’re doing also”, as one of his companions used a smart phone to video-record the dramatic confrontation.

The conflict with Howard prompted the school board to abruptly adjourn the meeting, effectively preventing members of the public from commenting on the Lizzio suspension, which is the “silencing” of parents Stefanik referenced in her Wednesday Facebook post.

Harper issued a lengthy statement of his own to district staff on Wednesday, referencing the Tuesday night school board meeting and parents’ continued frustration over the state’s mask mandate.

“We are aware the mask mandate is a polarizing topic,” wrote Harper. “We acknowledge that people have different opinions on this matter, and the most important and valued people in our lives — our children — are impacted by this mandate. We, too, look forward to an end to this pandemic and a resumption of our normal lives. As an educator with over 20 years of experience, I spent the vast majority of my career educating students in an environment without masks. Students’ smiles were seen and their laughter was not muffled by a face covering. These are odd times, and we look forward to when we can get back to normal, whatever that new normal may be.”

Harper in his statement called for increased civility.

“While we wait for changes to the mask mandate, I must remind you that we cannot lose our sense of civility, respect, and decorum,” he wrote. “We are adults and responsible for providing an example to our young students. We owe it to them. I was sad to observe people speaking out of turn and yelling at board members at last night’s meeting. This does nothing to serve the underlying cause. In fact, it divides us more.”

Harper then offered the potential for another school board public meeting to be held soon where the public could voice its opinions on the controversial topic.

“For those who attended last night’s board meeting to speak during public comment, we will be rescheduling the meeting shortly and apologize for having to abruptly end the meeting,” he wrote. “To ensure movement through public comment moving forward, the Board will put a process in place to keep public comment orderly and efficient. And, please remember, public comment is just that — the public’s opportunity to comment during the Board’s meeting. It is not a period of question-and-answer with the Board.”

Mayfield School Board member Jake Van Every also issued a statement on Facebook in the wake of Tuesday night’s meeting.

“After the behaviors I witnessed tonight, I have reached my breaking point,” Van Every said. “I’m not going to sugar coat it and it may hurt some feelings. Normally I do everything I can to ‘keep the peace’ and not hurt feelings. However what I have seen from the community, the community I love, is appalling! I’m shocked to see how many people quickly spread rumors, half truths, and lies, only to be given the truth [had nothing to do with a mask or Elise Stephanik] and then call the truth a lie! If that was the only problem, I could shrug that off though. The threats, the nasty emails, the way people continue to act towards their neighbors , and the hatred in the hearts of so many in this community has shook me to my core.”

In the lengthy statement, Van Every went on to say that the school district is prevented by state law from revealing any of the information regarding the brief suspension of one of the district’s teachers, and that those who want to intimidate volunteer school board members are in the wrong.

“Your threats of ‘voting them out’….. news flash… I was asked to try and help, and I agreed to try and help because that’s who I am!” Van Every wrote. “Well guess what , the loud mouth minority may have ruined it for everyone! That’s right you broke me!”

STEFANIK’S FOIL REQUEST AND APPEAL

Tuesday night before the MCSD school board meeting District Clerk Javarone told the Leader-Herald she is not Mayfield’s designated FOIL Officer, and that FOIL requests should more properly be sent to Mayfield Superintendent Christopher Harper, whose email is [email protected] Javarone said it’s not uncommon for FOIL requests from the public to be sent to her, and when that happens it is her practice to give those requests to the district’s superintendent.
Stefanik’s staff Wednesday indicated a paper version of the Feb. 3 request was also sent to MCSD.

A paper version of the FOIL request was not referenced in the school district’s Wednesday statement. MCSD attorney Erin Morris, of the Albany-based law firm Girvin & Ferlazzo did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story.

Stefanik’s staff also supplied a screenshot of her Feb. 14 FOIL appeal, which was sent to the email addresses of both Harper and Javarone on Monday at 2:21 p.m. Stefanik’s staff indicated a paper version of this request was also sent to the district.

Whether or not Mayfield Central School District can legally release any of the information Stefanik is seeking remains in doubt.

The New York State School Boards Association, on its website www.nyssba.org, indicates that the New York State Committee on Open Government in 2015 issued an advisory opinion on the issue of what information a school district can legally withhold, pertaining to teacher disciplinary actions under Education Law section 3020-a.

The New York state Committee on Open Government’s former director Robert Freeman wrote an opinion that supported a school district’s ability to withhold information about teacher disciplinary processes under two exemptions to FOIL:

  • The first involves the “inter-agency/intra-agency materials” exemption which, in Freeman’s view, protects from disclosure materials that “are reflective of opinion, advice, recommendation and the like.” Charges and allegations against employees not yet determined in a section 3020-a proceeding fall in that category.
  • The second FOIL exemption involves the “unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” In this regard, Freeman cited prior court decisions for the proposition that “when allegations of charges of misconduct have not yet been determined or did not result in disciplinary action” disclosure of “records relating to such allegations . would result in an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

In it’s statement Wednesday MCSD indicated its FOIL response to Stefanik will likely be limited in what information it will provide.

“The MCSD is committed to transparency in its practices,” wrote DeMars. “However, the district also is committed to protecting the privacy of its employees, and, as such, is limited in what information can be released regarding personnel matters.”

By Jason Subik

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