School board members allege electioneering by and for Horan

— From Facebook

This photo of Timothy Horan’s colleagues at Pine Bush Elementary supporting his candidacy for the board of elections, taken on election day at the school — a polling place — is one of the improprieties school officials say his campaign engaged in. The Guilderland Teachers’ Association posted the photo to its Facebook page, explaining that everyone was wearing “ties for Tim” in support of Horan’s candidacy.

GUILDERLAND — School officials are calling foul on campaign tactics for the district’s newest elected board member, Timothy Horan — but the results of the vote will likely still stand, according to the district’s attorney, Jeffrey Honeywell.

Allan Simpson, who lost his seat on the board in the election this month, suggested at the school-board meeting Tuesday night that Horan should be disqualified, or that there should at least be “repercussions,” for what he called Horan’s “total disregard for the rules.”

The board and Honeywell gave three examples of regulations they say seem to have been broken by Horan or school employees campaigning for him. These were an address made by Horan to the PTA; a photo of a group of teachers showing their support for Horan at the school on the day of the election; and a letter the teachers’ union president placed in teacher mailboxes at school the day before the election, supporting Horan.

Speaking before the PTA  

Horan had addressed a recent PTA meeting, according to Simpson. Horan did not return calls seeking comment.

However, the district’s assistant superintendent for business, Neil Sanders, had, during a workshop for all of the school board and library board candidates just days before, told them that they could appear at a PTA meeting, but would not be allowed to make speeches. That instruction was based on district policy developed by the board of education, with guidance from the New York State Education Department. Campaigning is not allowed on school grounds or at school events on school grounds, with the exception of events like “Meet the Candidates” night, according to the presentation given to candidates.

Board member Judy Slack said that the fact that Horan spoke after Wiles and Sanders had left the PTA meeting suggested that Horan had “an awareness of doing something wrong,” and said that she was “disappointed.”

Board member Barbara Fraterrigo said that “the sad part is that we need to police” candidates’ actions during the campaign.

Photograph

A photograph taken at Pine Bush Elementary School on the day of the election shows a group of about 25 teachers — men and women — posing at the school, all wearing neckties. The Guilderland Teachers’ Association posted the photo on Facebook and wrote, “The Pine Bush Elementary staff wore ties today to support their colleague, Tim Horan! Ties for Tim!”

The district’s attorney, Jeffrey Honeywell, said on Wednesday that the photo may violate Education Law 2031-A, the prohibition against electioneering within 100 feet of a polling place, since it was taken on election day at a school where citizens vote. The law provides, Honeywell said, that a “willful violation” of the prohibition against electioneering within 100 feet of a poll is a misdemeanor, although he added, “I don’t recall seeing many, if any, cases of people being charged.”

Letter

Finally, the union’s president, Erin McNamara, wrote a letter in support of Horan, who has been an elementary school teacher in the district, mainly at Pine Bush, for 30 years, and held various posts in the union. She distributed it to teachers and teaching assistants through their school mailboxes the day before the May 16 election.

“That is not permitted,” Wiles said. “You can’t campaign using school-district resources.” The mailboxes are school property, she said.

McNamara told The Enterprise this week that the intention of the letter had not been to campaign, but to respond to an article that ran in The Enterprise the week before the election detailing a lawsuit that parents of one of Horan’s students had filed on May 9.

The suit alleges that when Stephen and Heather Leader’s daughter fell from playground equipment and broke her wrists last October, Horan wouldn’t allow her to go to the nurse’s office or get medical care. The school district is also named as a defendant in the federal suit.

McNamara called the article “lopsided” and explained that she had placed the letters, the day before the election, in the mailboxes of all of the district’s teachers and teaching assistants, to “make it clear to our membership that that article did not represent what we knew about Tim and learned about the case within our own study of it,” she said.

“It really was in defense of him,” McNamara said of the letter, referring to Horan, and she wanted to be sure to reach her membership before the election.

McNamara had been quoted in the May 11 article that first broke the news of the lawsuit five days before the election. She was quoted in the article as saying that she believed the allegations in the suit to be false and emphasized that the GTA still supported Horan. Horan had declined to comment for the article.

“Shortage of time is not an excuse — not a legal excuse — to violate this regulation,” said Honeywell.

Honeywell said that the source for the prohibition against the GTA’s letter is “a different source, basically the New York State Constitution,” which has a provision prohibiting any public entity — including school districts — from using their resources, staff, or or communications systems to advocate for or against a candidate, a budget, or a proposition.

“A school district cannot,” he said, for example, “send a letter home to parents urging them to vote yes on the budget.”

McNamara said, “The district reached out to the GTA, and we have since assured them that we would no longer distribute any kind of election material or endorsement of a board candidate in the teacher mailboxes.”

There would be no problem, Honeywell said, with the association sending out letters to its members through the U.S. mail, which the union did in early May.

The GTA has a “longstanding practice, which is protected by the Taylor Law,” McNamara said, of distributing mail to its members through the mailboxes — “I believe since its inception.” The Taylor Law governs public employee unions in New York State.

“I did not know that the mailboxes we had been using for internal communication would be considered falling into that category as well,” McNamara said, referring to the classification of them as school property.

Election results

This was Horan’s first run for the board, and he received more votes than any other candidate. He was the only candidate backed by the Guilderland Teachers’ Association.

It was a five-way race for three seats. Horan got more than 25 percent of the vote, with 1,495. Also voted in were incumbent Judy Slack, with 22.5 percent of the vote, and Christopher McManus, with 19.5 percent. Slack has served on the board for nine years, and McManus is currently finishing his first term.

The other two candidates were Sean Maguire, who was running for the first time and received 19.2 percent, and Allan Simpson, who has been on the board since 2010 and has served as president, with 13.3 percent.

As for how many votes for Horan came from teachers, Wiles said, “I don’t think we have any way of knowing.” She said that the optional exit survey could provide some insights; it asks if the respondent is an employee of the district, but does not ask more specifically if the respondent is a teacher, and it does not ask who the respondent voted for.

Last year’s exit-poll survey showed that 7.2 percent of voters were district employees.

The new board will be seated on July 5.

Campaign rules

“You can’t use school property for partisan work, for campaigning in any way. School districts need to be vigilant that resources supported by taxpayer dollars are not used for any campaign purposes whatsoever,” Wiles said this week.

The New York State United Teachers’ representative for the Guilderland Teachers’ Association, Michael Rowan, emphasized that the teachers’ association is well within its rights to distribute communications to its members using the school mailboxes, and said the association had not realized that the end of the letter, urging members to vote for Horan, constituted campaigning, and so was not allowed.

Rowan said he believed that only the end of the letter, specifically asking members to vote for Horan, was prohibited, and that the rest of the letter, defending Horan’s character, was allowed.

Honeywell said he thought that was correct, and that the ending did make the letter inappropriate to put in mailboxes.

Rowan said that once school officials pointed out the problem and he checked into previous decisions by the State Education Commissioner, he realized that district officials were correct and that the letter should not have been placed in the mailboxes.

Prior to any future elections, district officials will “remind everybody what’s appropriate and what is not,” said Wiles.

“We didn’t understand. You can call it an honest mistake,” McNamara said.

The results of the election are unlikely to be overturned, said Honeywell. He said that any challenge to any kind of school election — including a budget vote, or the election of a candidate — takes the form of an appeal to the Commissioner of Education, who he said is “pretty reluctant to turn over a democratic vote.” The commissioner will only nullify a vote, Honeywell said, if there are clearly irregularities, and if those irregularities clearly influenced the outcome of the election.

He gave an example in which a vote might be overturned, saying: If an election is decided by one vote, and it is found that there were irregularities, such as a problem with voting machines, and then a lot of voters came forward to say, “I wasn’t able to vote for that candidate, but if I could, I would have.”

He concluded, “It has to be pretty extreme.”

 

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