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Educators, family ties in LI school board elections raise issues of objectivity, ethics

Voters cast their ballots shortly after the polls

Voters cast their ballots shortly after the polls opened Tuesday morning, Nov. 4, 2014, at Hampton Bays Middle School. Credit: James Carbone

Long Island is a workplace for more than 20,000 schoolteachers -- the region's largest occupational group and a major source of potential votes in any election.

In recent years, growing numbers of teachers, principals and other educators have taken a step further in public school involvement by mounting candidacies for school boards in their home communities, analysts said.

Such campaigns are legal under state law as long as school employees don't run for boards in the districts in which they work.

Many educators say their presence on boards adds a greater degree of professional know-how. That's particularly important, they say, at a time when communities are divided over whether to have students participate in state standardized tests that are tied to Common Core national academic standards.

Typically, the addition of an educator or two to a school board doesn't stir much controversy. As numbers increase, however, questions may arise over whether board members can maintain their objectivity on such issues as hiring and firing and approval of employee pay contracts.

Such is the case this year in Bayport-Blue Point, a middle-class district on the Islip- Brookhaven border. The district has long been home to many teachers and other school workers.

Four candidates -- two of them endorsed by the local teachers union -- are running for two board positions. Those endorsed are Christopher Richardt, principal of Hampton Bays High School, and Gina Murphy, a special-education teacher who works in the Brentwood district.

Richardt is running against the board's incumbent president, Rebecca Campbell, who is an attorney. Murphy's opponent, John Vazquez, is director of business development for American Express.

At a recent "Meet the Candidates" debate, Vazquez, in his opening statement, turned to the subject of his opponent's occupation. He noted that one teacher already sits on Bayport-Blue Point's seven-member board, and that an election victory for Murphy and Richardt on Tuesday would add two more educators to the panel.

"Frankly, the prospect of having three educators on the board is not healthy," said Vazquez, who later added, "I believe we're making a terrible mistake if we allow this conflict of interest."

Murphy, when her turn came, rejected Vazquez's argument. "I really don't see a problem with teachers being stewards of this community," she said. "I actually don't think that it is a conflict at all."

Across the region, such questions don't focus on the occupations of candidates alone. Often, the debate also touches on jobs held by candidates' family members.

Consider what happened in 2009, when the Shoreham-Wading River school board successfully pushed for a 25.9 percent tax increase. At the time, angry residents showed up at school meetings and complained that three of seven board trustees had family members who were active or retired educators, while a fourth trustee was a retired teacher.

Or take Brentwood's 2007 flare-up. Board trustees split 4 to 3 that year, over an attempt to give a teaching job to the daughter of the then-board president. The president already had two grown children working in the district, while one of his board allies had three grown children employed. Tempers rose so high that the majority faction hired an attorney to investigate unspecified allegations of wrongdoing against minority members.

A former Brentwood superintendent, Michael Cohen, recalled at the time being struck by the number of related school employees he had met at local functions while running the district: "People would say, 'Oh, this is so-and-so's son,' 'This is so-and-so's wife,' and you found yourself asking, where does it end?"

This year, based on biographical forms submitted by 267 Nassau and Suffolk school board candidates to Newsday, 96 of them, or 36 percent, were either active or retired public school employees themselves, or had immediate family members who were. Suffolk's 40 percent figure was substantially higher than Nassau's 28 percent.

Most boards in the Island's 124 districts have five to nine trustees, and in most districts a trustee's full term is three years. Terms are staggered so that only two or three seats are usually up for election in any one year. The posts are voluntary and unpaid.

Lorraine Deller, executive director of the Nassau-Suffolk School Boards Association, said there has been a noticeable rise over the past two years in the number of educators, active or retired, seeking board seats. She added that the increase appears due, in part at least, to turmoil surrounding the region's growing test-boycott movement that in April encompassed more than 45 percent of students in grades three through eight.

"On Long Island, we're not afraid of tests," said Deller, noting that the region's scores consistently outpace state averages. "What people don't like is chaos. And now, the emphasis is on finding a steady hand to run things, and warding off the turmoil and contradictory directives that come from Albany."

Board members who are educators typically say that their classroom experience comes in handy when they are helping set district policies. Many add, however, that they favor diverse boards that reflect the views of lawyers, bankers and business owners, as well as teachers and principals.

"One thing I learned in social work, you've got to get everybody on the same page," said Sean Douglas, a school social worker who has worked in the Uniondale district and has served on the board of Valley Stream District No. 13 since 2010.

On the other hand, Fred Gorman of Nesconset, a longtime regional taxpayer advocate, said he has observed that some educators who join school boards tend to micromanage districts -- for example, by pushing a pet reading program or some other instructional approach.

"They keep fixing things that aren't broken," Gorman said.

Section 2103 of state Education Law prohibits school district employees, including teachers, from serving on the board of the district in which they work.

Nothing restricts those employees from serving on the board of another district in which they reside. Nor are those employees barred, once they join a board, from voting on a measure -- say, a union contract -- that benefits school workers in that district.

Board members even may vote in favor of granting school jobs to immediate family members. Any such action, however, requires a two-thirds majority of the board.

Jay Worona, deputy executive director of the New York State School Boards Association, said local board members sometimes ask how they should handle such situations. Worona, who also is the association's general counsel, said he has advised that they not actively try during board discussions to persuade fellow trustees to vote in favor of a relative's employment.

Worona added: "I would say, 'Yes, you have a right to vote on that, but you might want to consider not doing so, because it could create the perception of impropriety.Those who compiled and wrote the information in the zoned editions of the School Voters Guide include staff writers John Asbury, Jennifer Barrios, Alfonso A. Castillo, Sophia Chang, Emily Dooley, Zachary R. Dowdy, Michael Ebert, Scott Eidler, Candice Ferrette, Laura Figueroa, Lisa Irizzary, Will James, Bart Jones, Patricia Kitchen, Chau Lam, Paul LaRocco, Carl MacGowan, Deborah S. Morris, William Murphy, Jo Napolitano, Ridgely Ochs, Ted Phillips, David Schwartz, Nicholas Spangler, Carol Polsky, Darran Simon, Victor Ramos, Candice Ruud, Joie Tyrrell, Olivia Winslow, Ellen Yan and freelance writers Maria Alvarez and Jim Merritt."

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