With Canfora’s resignation, a possible win for transparency on VCSD School Board

Enterprise file photo — Sean Mulkerrin 

Michael Canfora resigned from the Voorheesville School Board on Oct. 31, after four-and-a-half years on the board, citing work and family obligations. 

NEW SCOTLAND — When Bob Burns speaks, it’s about as subtle as a brick through a window.

For two years, in the pages of The Enterprise and in the middle of Voorheesville School Board meetings, Burns has defended to the hilt his friend, Robert Baron, always making it clear that he speaks for himself. 

Baron is the former head coach of the Voorheesville varsity girls’ basketball team, who is suing the school district, claiming he was fraudulently induced to resign from his position. 

At Monday’s school board meeting, after a recommendation was made by the district’s counsel to fill the seat of resigning board member, Michael Canfora, by appointment, Burns said that such an unpopular school board should not be making unilateral decisions about its next member, and called on the board to hold an election for the seat — which is an option under state law. 

Burns’s haranguing was then taken up by teachers who spoke from the gallery — if not in favor of an election — in favor of a more transparent appointment process, which led the remaining six board members, who at first seemed ready not to discuss anything publicly, to talk about which process would be best to find the next member of the school board. 

Whomever is appointed or elected will only be in the position until  the state-set May school board elections. The winner of the election will take over the seat in May rather than wait until the July reorganizational meeting. 


Canfora calls it quits

With two-and-half years left on his four-year term, Canfora resigned his seat on the board effective Oct. 31. First elected in 2015 to fill an expiring term, Canfora faced no opposition in his 2018 re-election bid

He did not return a call from The Enterprise, seeking comment. 

In a letter read at the Nov. 4 meeting, Canfora wrote: “After more than four years of public service to the Voorheesville community and Voorheesville Central School District I am resigning my position as Board of Education Trustee effective October 31, 2019 to concentrate on my professional responsibilities and spend more time with my family. 

“Please express to our community members my gratitude for their support. It has been a privilege and honor to have been entrusted to serve my community for the past four years.”

Canfora had been the lone board member who — and only on very rare occasions — would cast a dissenting vote against a school board that otherwise voted as one.

In April, Canfora voted against sending a $25.4 million budget — in which deep cuts had to be made to balance it — to the voters to decide on. In September 2017, he voted against senior citizens being able to attend plays and musicals for free.

At Monday’s meeting, Ryan Mullahy, the district’s lawyer, told the board it had two ways it could go about filling Canfora’s seat. State law also allows the seat to remain vacant until the next May election.

Section 1709 of New York State Education Law says that the board can appoint someone to fill the vacancy, Mullahy said, “and doesn’t really say much more how you go about doing that.”

And Section 2113 allows for a vote to be held, which could happen within 90 days of the vacancy, Mullahy said, and that vote would be just like the May board and budget vote, where a candidate would have to file a petition with 25 signatures to run. 

Voorheesville’s own board policy, he said, “more or less” cites Section 1709 of the State Education Law, “and appears to give preference to an appointment by the board, as opposed to holding a special election.” 

Mullahy continued, “It uses permissive language of, ‘May appoint.’ So it doesn’t require you to do an appointment, it leaves open the possibility of an election — if you so chose.” 

Voorheesville’s policy gives it greater flexibility with its board appointments than other area school districts, he said. Voorheesville has always appointed members to fill vacancies rather than holding special elections.

Mullahy’s recommendation was to avoid the cost, time, and expense of an election. “It’s a big undertaking, especially for something that would only be in place for six months or so,” he said. 

In other school districts, he said, old members had been “dragged out” of retirement; or a loser of previous elections had been placed in the seat; or an active parent had been appointed; or some districts, “by practice or by policy” would accept letters or applications for the job, and then go through an interview process, which is undefined in the law.

The interview process would be whatever the board thinks is fair to fill the seat, Mullahy said. 

Board member Robert Samson asked about holding interviews for the seat, as Guilderland has done twice, most recently after a board member stepped down in August and a new one was appointed in October. 

“There’s an argument,” Mullahy said that the interviews could be held either in executive or public session, adding that an interview in a public session could be a “bit daunting.” 

For its last two appoints, Guilderland held public interviews, which were also televised.

The meeting was then opened up for public comment, and Burns was the first person to speak. “Put it out to an election; take it out of the board’s hands,” he said, stating that an election is the best way to get the broadest amount of voter feedback. 

The last time there had been a resignation, in 2014, the board advertised the opening in the district’s newsletter. Residents sent in biographies, with Doreen Saia ultimately being chosen. 

During the last election, in May, the voters spoke — it was highly unfavorable to the board, Burns said. “And they spoke in large numbers.”

In that election, Rachel Gilker nearly tripled the vote count of incumbent board President Saia. A total of 1,210 people voted, nearly doubling the 655 votes that were cast in 2018. Gilker received 775 votes to Saia’s 278 while newcomer Sean Fell received 100 votes.

The way board meetings in Voorheesville are structured is that the public has two opportunities to address the board: once at the beginning of the meeting and again at the end. Board members have one opportunity at the end of the meeting to address their fellow members and the public — rarely do members take the opportunity to do so. 

On Monday night, after teachers and Burns — for a second time — spoke, it was Gilker who dragged the board into discussing publicly the appointment and election options laid out by Mullahy earlier in the meeting. 

“Do we want to talk about the options that were mentioned,” she said

“He gave us something to think about,” board President Cynthia Monaghan said in response. “Unless anybody has any comments on that.” 

Gilker did. 

She said she wanted to discuss the idea of having potentially-interested board members submit applications and how that interview process would play out, or how the board would reach out to people it may ask to serve on the board, or about having an election — “publicly discuss that,” she said. 

Samson said, “I love elections,” and added that he wants to make sure that the board is as transparent and thoughtful as possible in the process. However, he said, there are costs associated with an election, but, even if it were free, the election wouldn’t be until after the new year, and then the next election would only be a few months after that. 

“Having the community speak is crucial; it also sometimes is not a function of realistic action,” Gilker said of holding an election, adding whomever won the election would at most be in the seat for about four-and-a-half months. 

And if the board does plan on making an appointment, she said, it should be done with transparency. 

There was then a favorable discussion about the way Guilderland appointed its newest board member: Advertise the position, hold public interviews, and then make a decision about an appointment in executive session. 

Monaghan ended the meeting by saying that more time and information were needed before any decision was to be made.

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