The Riverhead school board claims its effort to pass the $78.4 million bond referendum was carried out with “honesty, creativity and integrity.” Sadly, nothing could be further from the truth, as the board and its partner-in-deception, the so-called Friends of the Riverhead School District Bond combined forces and demonstrated that they are organizations with little honesty or integrity, but certainly plenty of creativity when it comes to deception and manipulation.
First, a little bit about the board’s creativity: they moved voting machines from a central high school location to voting stations at each of our elementary schools. Then, they quite cleverly scheduled K-4 parent-teacher nights on the same day as the election. Was that date selected for the benefit of the students? Of course not.
The scheduling was a creative and successful attempt to generate the greatest participation by elementary school parents who, coincidentally, are the most inclined to vote in favor of tax increases for school spending. With all those parents filling the parking lots, frail seniors, the most likely “no” voters, would have a difficult time getting to the polls. Creativity grade: A+
The school district’s informational materials, which told taxpayers that their tax bills would not increase for two years was also very creative. In reality, the bond interest will cost Riverhead taxpayers from day the bond is issued next year.
“Wait a minute,” you say. “The School Board told us that they would use reserve funds to offset the costs.”
Yes, they would take it out of the district’s savings account for a rainy day. Where did those rainy day funds come from? The Easter Bunny? No, from the taxpayers! The reserve spending has cost the taxpayers money and will continue to do so. Creativity grade: A+ Deception: A+ Honesty: D- Integrity: F
Under the New York State election law, campaigning at polling places is forbidden. To my surprise, several parents told me the teachers were wearing “Vote Yes” buttons at polling locations. If election law applied to Riverhead school elections, the teachers would have been forced to remove the campaign buttons or to leave the building. But alas, the state education department, not the Suffolk County Board of Elections, regulates school elections and apparently the state does not object to campaigning at polling places for school elections. Creativity grade: A+ Honesty and Integrity: F-
The morning after the board declared a 234-vote victory, Ann Cotton-DeGrasse, president of the school board, announced that she noticed a $4 million operating deficit in the next operating budget. Either she and her cronies immediately started working on the budget after the polls closed and through the night — or withheld information from the voting public. Somehow, I doubt she pulled an all-nighter. Deception grade: A+ Honesty and integrity grades: F-
And what about those Friends of the Riverhead School District Bond who contributed thousands upon thousands of dollars to the “Vote Yes’ campaign? Despite many requests, the “Friends” refused to identify their funders except as “concerned citizens.” I scratched my head to determine where they got all their money. Could it be from people who would be making money from this tax increase? Large construction companies? Bond counsel law firms? Bond underwriters? Teacher and administrator unions? We don’t know.
Others and I posted questions and requests on the “Friends”’ Facebook page. One posting suggested that, because the “Friends” refuse to identify their donors, that the “Friends” (and donors) had something to hide. The posts were deleted. Individuals were banned from the site. The “Friends” state that their page is “for information, awareness and discussion regarding the upcoming…vote. Please be honest, appropriate and spread the word!”
They should have written “This page is for citizens who support the bond and have the same concerns as us. All others will be silenced!” Deception grade: A+
I am a believer in free political speech by individuals, corporations and unions too. But when a not-for-profit organization promoting an election issue refuses to identify its donors, I am left wondering and I fear for our democracy. The U.S. Supreme Court may have decided groups like “Friends of the Riverhead School District Bond” do not have to disclose their donors names or the amount of money donated to fight their cause. The state could, though, impose sanctions against school districts that employ deceptive election practices — including polling place campaigning and the scheduling of parent-teacher nights (or any other kinds of events other than voting) at polling locations.
All the election manipulation that money could buy was deployed on Oct. 11, proving that secret sources of really big money, in cahoots with administrative officials, can be harnessed to manipulate votes.
I hope state education department commissioner John B. King Jr. can somehow intervene. The Riverhead school district and its “Friends” set terrible examples of democracy for the youth in Riverhead. We need the education department to find ways to make sure these elections maintain their integrity, honesty and transparency. As it stands the Riverhead school board and the Friends of the Riverhead School District Bond have set excellent examples for deception, dishonesty and corruption. Their excellent use of creativity, however, will cost the taxpayers almost $80 million.
Vince Taldone is a Riverhead school district resident, former Suffolk County Planning Commissioner and current president of the Flanders, Riverside and Northampton Community Association.