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Jun 5, 2012 6:43 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Westhampton Beach Board Of Education Investigates Allegations of Illegal Electioneering

Jun 6, 2012 2:11 PM

Allegations of illegal electioneering in the days leading up to last month’s Westhampton Beach Board of Education election and 2012-13 school budget vote are being investigated by board members after a complaint was filed last week by a former board president.

Westhampton Beach resident Aram Terchunian, who served on the board for a decade before losing a reelection bid last year, has raised concerns that fliers endorsing School Board candidate Joyce Donneson, who was defeated by Gordon Werner in the May 15 election, were placed in teacher mailboxes the day before the election by members of the Westhampton Beach Teachers Association. He is charging that their actions violated state law, and while he commended the speedy removal of the offending fliers by district officials, Mr. Terchunian is now calling for the district to punish teachers union President Jim Duca, whose name was signed on the bottom of the fliers.

“This is an established breach of state law, state regulation and school policy,” Mr. Terchunian said this week. “Whoever is responsible for that breach needs to be disciplined based on the protocols the board has in place.”

According to Mr. Terchunian, he began hearing rumors of the illegal electioneering last week from residents and immediately scheduled a meeting with Schools Superintendent Michael Radday, who, Mr. Terchunian said, confirmed that there was an incident involving a circulated letter the week before the election and that Mr. Duca has since been advised that the union had violated both state law and school policy. Mr. Radday said he never told Mr. Duca that he was violating state law.

In an email sent on Wednesday, Mr. Duca referred all questions to Carl Korn, the chief press officer with the New York State United Teachers, the state teachers’ union. Mr. Korn said the letter in question was not printed on school paper or using district printers, and that it is common practice in the district for such letters to be distributed in teacher mailboxes.

“While letters were placed in teachers’ mailboxes, this is a long-standing practice at Westhampton Beach,” Mr. Korn said. “For more than 20 years, mailboxes have been used to remind teachers of budget votes and bond votes, all with the full knowledge of the Board of Education and the district superintendent.”

On Wednesday morning, Mr. Radday said he was made aware of the letter on the morning of the election and immediately requested that his principals remove them from mailboxes.

“There is no specific policy that would directly prohibit the use of mailboxes,” Mr. Radday said. “But the district does not condone any advocacy activity that would even hint at impropriety regarding the School Board and budget elections.”

Westhampton Beach Board of Education President James Hulme said a flyer was placed in the mailboxes of approximately 200 teachers and that the incident is currently being reviewed by the board. Noting that the issue could potentially involve personnel, he declined to comment on potential repercussions.

He added that it would be a violation of school code if the flyer was printed on school paper or copied using school copiers. “The school itself is not allowed to promote a point of view on the budget or any specific candidate,” Mr. Hulme said. “We are not allowed to allow taxpayer dollars to be spent for that purpose.”

He later added that he did not know what kind of disciplinary action, if any, could be taken.

According to Tom Dunn, a press representative from the New York State Education Department, electioneering on school property is illegal and includes, but is not limited to “such activity as distributing or displaying a candidate’s campaign materials or materials in support of or opposition to any proposition.” The circulation of fliers promoting a specific school board candidate qualifies as a violation, he said.

Additionally, Mr. Dunn said people who intentionally violate the electioneering laws could face criminal charges.

“Any person who willfully violates the prohibition on electioneering may be found guilty of a misdemeanor,” he wrote in an email while quoting “The School Law Handbook,” a publication of the New York State Bar Association and the New York State School Boards Association. “However, absent proof that electioneering affected the outcome of an election, proof that electioneering occurred is no basis to overturn the results of the election,” Mr. Dunn wrote.

The flyer states that the Westhampton Beach Teachers Association endorses Ms. Donneson. It states that she would provide the best opportunity for the district to offer a quality education to all students. The letter, which was signed by Mr. Duca, also encourages all taxpayers to support the district’s $51.8 million budget, which ultimately passed even though it pierced the state’s new 2 percent cap on the tax levy, requiring the approval of 60 percent of voters.

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