UNION – The board of education unanimously appointed school board candidate Steven Le to fill the unexpired term of Susan Vitali, who resigned her seat recently. The move, however, was not received well by parents or the remaining candidates running in the Nov. 4 election for three expired seats.
Le, a newcomer running on the same slate as incumbent board members Ray Perkins and Vito Nufrio, was sworn in as a board member Sept. 17 and now sits on the board until the end of the calendar year when Vitali’s term is officially over.
Le also remains on the ballot for the November election, when voters decide which of the five candidates in the race should win the three seats up for grabs.
Also running in the November race are Christopher Hackett and Ondria Caffey along with Parents for Change candidates Ronnie McDowell and Nancy Zuena.
School Board President Ray Perkins explained at this meeting why Le was the top choice by an ad hoc committee out of a field of four candidates who applied for the unexpired seat.
“The committee felt Steven Le was the most knowledgeable about issues facing the board of education,” he said, adding that although the remaining candidates had impressive resumes, Le “had a better handle on issues facing the board in both the short and long range.”
Also weighing heavily in the decision by the ad hoc committee, which included school board members Richard Galante, David Arminio and Guy Frances, was the fact Le was the only candidate to file for the November election as a school board candidate.
“He showed the availability, drive and dedication to stay for the long haul. He also had an understanding of the needs of the district and a good understanding in how the board could harmoniously achieve all of our goals,” the school board president said, explaining that because of this and other reasons “it was the unanimous decision of the board to enthusiastically and without reservation nominate Steven Le for the seat that will expire Dec. 31, 2014.”
Not everyone agreed with the board’s decision and during the public portion of the meeting objectors stepped to the podium to express exactly how they felt about the entire selection process.
One resident questioned the procedure followed by the board during the selection process, but Perkins assured the board went beyond what was required by law.
“We followed the procedure laid out in our bylaws, but we could have just simply appointed someone because state law does not require that we hold interviews,” the school board president stressed.
Jeff Monge, who dropped out of the race recently, took issue with the fact the interviews and voting were done behind closed doors. He suggested Perkins and Nufrio should have recused themselves from voting, because “obviously you are running for reelection.”
“There was no reason for recusing ourselves,” he said, but Monge did not agree at all.
“There is a conflict of interest because you are running with someone who is running for a seat,” Monge shot back, adding this “was an unfair advantage.”
Perkins, while still disagreeing, turned to the school board attorney, who confirmed that how the board selected Le was not a conflict of interest legally.
Paul Casey, another candidate who also dropped out of the race in recent weeks to bolster the chances of Parents for Change candidates, felt the board selected exactly who they wanted.
“This individual got an unfair advantage and I think voters should take this under consideration,” the former candidate said.
School board candidate Caffey also spoke at the podium about the selection process, pointing out she spoke for not only herself but also for Hackett.
“The way this was handled with Mr. Le was legal but that doesn’t make it right,” she said, adding that because Le was on the same ticket as two sitting school board members, it gave the wrong impression to the public.
“Not only did the board decide to take this election into their own hands but they did it without input by the public or the rest of the board,” Caffey said, adding “this is yet another lack of transparency on the board which you should be embarrassed about.”
Susan Lipstein, who applied for the unexpired term on the board with a 23-page application, noted after she was interviewed that while she appreciated the ad hoc committee taking time to interview her, she felt the entire process should have been more public.
“I believe it would have been in the best interest of the board and public to have held these interviews in public session, which has been done in the past, so the public could hear everyone’s answers,” she said in a statement.
Lipstein also said that, in her opinion, in order to provide the openness and transparency that good government needs, our district needs to adopt and follow a consistent policy for filling vacancies.
“Other districts do, and many other districts require public interviews,” Lipstein said, noting that Le would have shown his worthiness as a true candidate by letting the public know about him, not just the members of the ad hoc committee.
Parents for Change also issued a statement following the appointment of Le, noting that “this is just another example of poor leadership.”
“Instead, a decision was made to prioritize a political agenda and not select the most qualified candidate,” the group said.
“This is a clear conflict of interest and unethical,” the parents group said, adding “the priority must be our children and this decision is just another example that Perkins, Nufrio and Le will not put our children first.”
“We must have a board that promotes a culture of transparency and cooperation while ensuring a quality education for all the children,” the Parents for Change group said.
Hackett and Caffey also released a statement this week regarding the school board’s selecting Le to fill the vacancy, pointing out Le currently is a campaigning candidate for the November election.
“It’s disappointing that the process was not transparent; therefore the community did not get an opportunity to hear, first hand, any of the applicants answers to the committee’s questions. It appears that the other applicants were at a disadvantage, as well as the public,” the two candidates said in their joint statement.
“Steven Le has been given the ability to sit on the board and reap the advantages that the role brings in the month leading up to the election,” Hackett and Caffey said.
“Acts like this reinforce what many of us in town already know: honesty isn’t always just about doing what is legal. It is about doing what is right,” said Hackett, adding that he and running mate Caffey felt that Le should have rejected the nomination by the school board and allowed voters to decide his merit in November.