Schenectady school vote appeal to state looks fatally flawed

As for the appeal of the Schenectady school budget vote that I wrote about a few weeks ago, you’re n

As for the appeal of the Schenectady school budget vote that I wrote about a few weeks ago, you’re not going to believe this one.

The state Education Department employee who surreptitiously organized the appeal effort apparently failed to gather enough valid signatures for it, and so it is probably doomed to an early death without the merits of it ever being ruled on.

The law is that you’ve got to have the signatures of enough people so the election result would be different if those people had voted differently, which in Schenectady’s case meant merely 24 people had to sign, since the school district’s budget finally passed by a margin of 47 votes. But those had to be 24 people who had voted in the second, crucial election. They couldn’t be just any old neighbors who were upset over higher taxes.

Now, it is standard in the world of politics to gather at least twice as many signatures as you legally need for a petition of any kind, on the assumption that some of those signatures are going to be invalid for one reason or another and the opposition is surely going to pick through them all to disqualify as many as possible.

If you need 10,000 signatures, it obviously takes a major effort to gather 20,000, but how much effort does it take to gather 48 rather than 24? Not much.

Nevertheless, this state employee, who does not want her name made public, gathered on her own just exactly the required 24 and then picked up eight more from the private citizen she recruited to be the official petition carrier, since she couldn’t perform that function herself.

So she submitted 32 signatures, which gave not much of a margin for error, and lo, in its response to this legal action, seeking to invalidate the budget vote and remove school leaders from office, the school district says it checked election records and determined that only 17 of those 32 people were qualified to sign by dint of having voted in the June 16 election.

This was disclosed in an affidavit submitted by the school district’s recently retired clerk, Dick Yager, and submitted to the Education Department as part of the district’s formal response to the appeal.

There were other objections stated also, of a procedural nature, one by Superintendent Eric Ely that he was not personally served with the petition as the law requires, which I thought was cute, since the neutral third party who carried the petition to the school administrative offices hand-delivered it to the school attorney, Shari Greenleaf, who accepted it on Ely’s behalf, I was told.

But no good. If it wasn’t put directly into Ely’s hands, it doesn’t count.

And so forth. And this raises in my mind a question: Why the devil does the state Education Department need to hide in the shadows and solicit a private citizen to make a formal complaint, dotting all the procedural i’s and crossing all the procedural t’s, before it can take action?

If a small business owner dumps sewage into the Mohawk River, the Department of Environmental Conservation doesn’t recruit a private citizen to file a complaint so that it can take action.

What kind of a crazy way to run a government would that be?

The Schenectady City School District, under the direction of Superintendent Eric Ely and then-Board of Education President Jeff Janiszewski, brazenly concocted a contingency budget based on an inflated enrollment projection that generated a 16 percent tax increase. Faced with that scary alternative, the people of Schenectady very narrowly approved the regular budget with a less scary 6 percent tax increase.

The news of the stunt was widely disseminated, and I’m told that staff members of the Education Department actually advised Ely he couldn’t do the contingency budget the way he was doing it, and he did it anyway.

So what happened? A mid-level employee of the department went skulking around, behind the scenes, with the coaching and encouragement of the Education Department’s own lawyers, to put together a legal action pursuant to Education Law with a private citizen serving as front man, that is, being the official petitioner.

For this role they recruited Vince Riggi, an auto-body repairman from the Bellevue neighborhood who has long been a watchdog over local government and who distinguished himself in 2006 by mounting a successful petition drive against a mayoral pay raise. Somebody who would have some credibility.

He got involved in good faith, confident that an employee of the Education Department would know how to follow the intricate procedures prescribed by law, including right down to the size paper to be used (8.5 x 11), though in the end it appears she bungled the job and the appeal will most likely be quashed.

What a way to run a government!

Get off your bureaucratic butts and do it yourself, I would like to say to the Education Department. Don’t hide behind a private citizen. If you see a school district concocting a phony budget and using it to intimidate its own residents, take your own action. Otherwise who needs you?

“It’s a technicality,” said the department employee who initiated this effort. “I’m hoping the commissioner will respond to more than a mere technicalilty,” to which I say lots of luck.

“It’s too bad it came down this way,” Riggi says. “I’d like to have the commissioner answer this appeal on the merits of it. Was that contingency budget correctly figured or not? That’s the real bottom line. If they’re allowed to get away with this, it’s really a shame.”

I agree with that sentiment, but now I doubt if anything is going to come of it. Schenectady school leaders pulled a fast one, and that will be the end of it.

Categories: Opinion

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