False rumor of bus-driver jobs at stake fuels BKW election furor

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

Campaign signs are posted by the road in front of the Berne-Knox-Westerlo superintendent’s home, endorsing the current school board president, Matthew Tedeschi, and his running mate, Rebecca Miller, for the district’s board of education.

BERNE — As school bus drivers worry about their jobs — without cause, according to the Berne-Knox-Westerlo superintendent — their union has backed two challengers, running as a team in the school board race.

At the same time, Superintendent Timothy Mundell has taken the unusual move of inserting himself into the heated election.

Much of the last-minute controversy in the four-way race for two seats is playing out in social media the day before and the day of the election, today, May 21.

All four candidates have pages on Facebook for their campaigns. Matthew Tedeschi, the school board president running to keep his seat, has put up videos on his page. He and the other candidates have also shared letters written to the Enterprise editor endorsing them.

Some of the interactions have become heated. One post from the community page The Happenings in the Town of Berne NY shares a photo of a campaign sign endorsing Tedeschi and his running mate, Rebecca Miller, that sits close to Albany County Comptroller Susan Rizzo’s sign and speculates — perhaps in jest — that the candidates are running together. A second photo in the post shows Rizzo posing with a drag queen at an event. In a comment, Tedeschi vehemently denies any involvement in politics outside of the school board race.


— Photo from Facebook
A postcard sent by the Civil Service Employees Association endorses two challengers in Berne-Knox-Westerlo’s school board race. The school board president, Matthew Tedeschi, running for re-election, said Superintendent Timothy Mundell had notified the school board that the postcard had been sent to Mundell’s daughter — a high school student — and that Mundell was very upset about it.


CSEA claims “takeover” of BKW transportation possible

Tedeschi himself posted an image of a postcard that he said had been shared with voting-age high school students. The postcard from the local unit of the Civil Service Employees Association, stating that the union has endorsed board candidates Mackenzie Hempstead and Robin Becker, adds that the candidates are against “the BOCES takeover of district transportation,” referencing a transportation study with BKW and the Board of Cooperative Education Services.

The local CSEA unit includes clerical workers, food-service workers, custodians, maintenance workers, and bus drivers, and totals 45 to 50 people, Mundell said.

The BKW Teacher Association has about 80 members and did not endorse anyone, Mundell said. The association interviewed three of the candidates — Robin Becker did not participate — and sent the answers given to union members who live in the district, Mundell said.

“Spreading rumors is one thing but addressing and mailing these to our HS voting age kids is wrong!” Tedeschi wrote on his Facebook page.

He told The Enterprise on Tuesday that Superintendent Mundell had notified the school board that a postcard had been sent to Mundell’s daughter — a high school student — and that Mundell was very upset about it.

Mundell told The Enterprise Tuesday the postcard had arrived Saturday morning, addressed to his 16-year-old daughter, Caroline Mundell. He said he checked around town and heard of no other students receiving one.

He, his wife, and his daughter are the only residents of the house, Mundell said.

David Chase, a bus driver at BKW and president of the school’s CSEA unit, said that the union is endorsing Hempstead and Becker because, after interviews with the candidates, it was determined by himself and other members that they would best serve the school.

Chase said that he did not control what was written on the postcard or its distribution, but he said that the rumor that one had been sent to the superintendent’s daughter was incorrect. Rather, it had been sent to someone with the same name and address who was born in 1934, he said, though he could not clarify who that person was in relation to the superintendent.

Mundell told The Enterprise he had researched the name Caroline Mundell after the postcard arrived and found only one other person by that name, in Warrensburg, New York, with no history in Albany County and a different middle initial. He also checked the names of people who had owned the house before him and found no other Caroline Mundell.

“We ran a clean campaign,” Chase told The Enterprise, adding that he never said that Tedeschi or Miller supported consolidating bus drivers.

Chase said he does not think school board members or administration should be involved in the school board election.

Therese Assalian, a communications specialist at CSEA, told The Enterprise that postcard mailings are sent to registered voters who are members of CSEA, and would not be sent to high school students. The postcard in question, she said, had been sent to a Caroline Mundell born in 1934, who would be in her eighties.

Assalian said that the postcard was referencing discussions between BOCES and BKW of possible consolidation and that, while talks are in the early stages, the union has tried to be proactive on issues like consolidation.

Assalian said that CSEA in general opposes consolidation due to the loss of jobs and possibly losing a local connection that employees have as well, and added that there may not be a net cost savings due to residents being out of work.

Chase said that the union first learned about a transportation study with BOCES early this year. He said that it was not made clear what aspects of transportation the study would focus on, but said union members were told they would not have a union contract if the school outsourced drivers.

Mundell walked The Enterprise through the study with BOCES, beginning with the BKW School Board setting goals each year, one of them being for fiscal responsibility. For instance, when BKW’s cafeteria director retired, the district contracted with BOCES for food services.

On Jan. 3, Mundell said, he had a meeting at the Schoharie BOCES with two other superintendents in the room. “It was a private conversation,” he said about what was needed for cost efficiency in transportation, and focused on mechanic and supervisory services.

“We agreed to participate [in the study] for services that had nothing to do with bus drivers,” Mundell said.

Because rumors had spread, Mundell said, he had a meeting with BKW bus drivers on Feb. 14, telling them BOCES is not interested in buying buses or hiring bus drivers.

Rumors persisted, Mundell said, with Chase alleging, “We have a credible source: It’s a done deal.”

At the March 25 school board meeting, Mundell made a public statement debunking the rumors.

On Tuesday, Mundell described the union tactics as “fear-mongering.”

Chase said that on Monday afternoon Mundell posted information on the study on the bus garage’s bulletin board but Chase did not get a chance to review them.

On Monday, an email was sent by the school district to those who have signed up for BKW’s notification system — usually used for things like letting parents know of early school closings or posting meeting dates — in an apparent attempt to respond to the discussion of the transportation study.

The notice included an apparently forwarded email conversation between Mundell and BOCES superintendent Anita Murphy. In it, Mundell asks Murphy to clarify what the transportation study is.

Murphy responds that BOCES currently has two ongoing transportation initiatives. One is sharing bus mechanics; two districts are participating, but BKW is not one of them. The other involves 24 districts, including BKW, that share bus-route information to help coordinate transportation for students who are from outside the district or homeless. She wrote that BKW is involved in the study only to find routes that might be used for out-of-district placement.

Murphy emphasizes in her email that BOCES is not interested in owning buses or employing drivers.

Murphy told The Enterprise on Tuesday that the ongoing study of bus routes has been underway for three years to help with the statewide shortage of bus drivers. She said that the purpose of the study is to use the information to help districts have more efficient routes, but that participating districts do not have to share information or even do anything with the results of the study.

“So the CSEA is absolutely mistaken,” she said.

Murphy said that she did not know how the idea that BOCES would be replacing bus drivers got out there. She emphasized that BOCES does not employ bus drivers or provide buses, and said that it never will. This is partly because it does not make sense to do so, she said, as district transportation receives certain aid from the state and BOCES does not have the background in transportation that school districts have.

Election signs

The superintendent himself has signs endorsing Tedeschi and Miller posted by the road in front of his house, pictured in a photograph circulating on social media. School administrators typically don’t side with one set of candidates or another in school board elections.

David Albert, spokesman for the New York State School Boards Association, told The Enterprise that the superintendent, “acting as a private citizen,” has a First Amendment right to post a lawn sign on his property.

Robert Lowry, deputy director for advocacy research and communications at the New York State Council of School Superintendents, said Tuesday morning that he is not aware of any rules or guidelines on an administrator endorsing candidates, but he said it seemed to be a rare occurrence in the state. Lowry added that a superintendent should keep in mind how an endorsement would factor into the relationship with the school board, which employs the superintendent.

A state education department official declined to comment, saying that the education commissioner would be required to rule if an appeal arose from the issue.

Asked about the signs in front of his house, Mundell said, “I respect Mr. Chase’s First Amendment rights. He takes full liberty to the very edge. I, too, am a taxpayer, a parent, and a community member as is my wife …

“Hence, the law allows me to use my private property to express my opinion.”

Mundell noted that he would not use the district’s communication system or his “employment platform” to endorse a candidate but, rather, was acting as a private citizen.

Mundell went on about he and his wife’s First Amendment rights, “To suggest that right is prohibited but he [Chase] gets to propagate rumors and lies … That is a double standard.”

The idea that rules apply to others but not to oneself, Mundell said is “a cultural issue this community needs to figure out.” He went on, “Often, up here, people deal with assumption and innuendo.”

Mundell concluded by referencing a May 16 letter to the Enterprise editor from Tedeschi, “Isn’t it time we change the culture of the community?” which stated “... a small minority of people in our district think that it is OK to spread rumors and lies to discredit me to promote their candidate.”

Tedeschi asked and Mundell echoed the question: Is this the example we want to set for our children?

— Melissa Hale-Spencer added the information from Timothy Mundell.

More Hilltowns News

The Altamont Enterprise is focused on hyper-local, high-quality journalism. We produce free election guides, curate readers' opinion pieces, and engage with important local issues. Subscriptions open full access to our work and make it possible.