State probes school budget voting for illegalities
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State education officials are investigating reports that more than 60 Long Island school districts used the services of a Bellport data-systems company that advertised it could help maximize their "yes" vote during budget elections -- an activity that, for districts, is banned.
Ken Slentz, the state's top official for elementary and secondary education, said his office was checking with two regional BOCES here, which helped districts establish "cooperative" contracts with the company, Bold Systems.
The purpose of the inquiry, Slentz said, is to determine if any BOCES contracts or other documents indicated that Bold Systems had detailed services that schools are not legally authorized to use.
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BOCES executives declared, meanwhile, that they had ordered a halt to any such potentially illegal activity last week, as soon as they were alerted to the problem.
"Had I known about it earlier, I would have stopped it immediately," said Gary Bixhorn, chief operating officer of the Eastern Suffolk Board of Cooperative Educational Services, headquartered in Patchogue.
Bixhorn said he ordered Bold Systems to stop marketing its ability to give districts an electoral "edge" and to disable a computerized system with the potential to provide real-time lists of parents and district employees who had not voted on school budgets during May elections. The BOCES executive added that he was alerted to the issue Wednesday, in a call from the Bayport-Blue Point district.
Eastern Suffolk BOCES records show that 35 districts in that county paid a total of more than $400,000 to the Bellport firm last year. Agency staffers added that Bold Systems had provided cooperating districts with voter data for more than five years.
Under law, districts are encouraged to combine in purchasing services through BOCES on the assumption that this saves money.
The Education Department surveyed all BOCES districts about the Bold Systems product, spokesman Tom Dunn said. "It is our understanding that it has not been used outside of Long Island," he said, adding the department is examining the extent to which any districts used the voter-targeted component.
Brian Jusas, owner of Bold Systems, said Monday that, in response to the BOCES actions, he deleted website advertising of the company's ability to provide districts with specific "call lists" of voters considered apt to support budgets. Jusas said his company provides many useful services to school districts, including computerized lists of registered voters and their addresses, mailing labels and absentee voter reports.
"There are a lot of positive things in the system that people don't talk about," he said.
Pressures to pass spending plans have increased since Albany last year first imposed caps on tax increases.In addition, districts face a challenging administrative task in keeping accurate track of registered voters, a job that Bold Systems assumes for many.
Noel Feustel of Bayport, a real estate broker and civic activist, helped touch off the investigation when he got BOCES records through the state's Freedom of Information law.