Riverhead school officials strongly deny electioneering

Carney of Riverhead
JENNIFER GUSTAVSON PHOTO | Superintendent Nancy Carney and board president Anne Cotten-DeGrasse at Tuesday night’s meeting.

Riverhead school officials denied allegations this week of misusing the district’s electronic record-keeping software to influence voter turnout during budget votes.

According to Newsday, the state education department is investigating more than 60 Long Island school districts that use software from Bold Systems, a Bellport company that allegedly claims the product can be used to influence voter turnout during budget votes. According to the Newsday report, the company has said the software can “track voter turnout in real time, and gives districts the ability to generate call lists of key voting blocs.”

State election laws prohibit public entities, like school districts, from influencing voter turnout in this manner, although some school officials quoted in the Newsday report deny using the program in that way.

Riverhead Superintendent Nancy Carney stated Tuesday the district hasn’t used the software to influence budget votes and has not been notified that the district is under investigation.

“We never used this software in any way, shape or form for electioneering,” she said.

The district is required to keep its own records of its 24,000 registered voters, and Bold Systems’ software allows it to organize the records electronically, she said. The electronic database gets registered voter information from both the Suffolk County Board of Elections and the district’s Board of Registration, which is headed by district clerk Barbara O’Kula, she said. The data is then put into a web-based browser, and the district uses the information to sign voters in on election day. The process enforces the “rule of one person, one vote,” Ms. Carney said.

The district bought rights to the Bold software in the fall of 2008 through a shared-service contract with BOCES, and the system has been in place since the May 2009 election, she said.

Shoreham-Wading River Superintendent Steven Cohen said that district is not among the 60 Long Island districts Newsday says uses the software. Shoreham, with about 9,000 voters, gets a list from the Suffolk County Board of Elections of everyone in the district who’s registered to vote in Suffolk County, district clerk Janice Seus later explained. The district keeps a separate book for people registered to vote in the school district but not in the county, she said.

“It’s a little cumbersome and it’s a little bit of work, but I don’t mind doing it,” Ms. Seus said, adding that the Bold software was prohibitively expensive, so they stuck with the old system. “I’d rather do the work than have us spend the $20,000.”

Ms. Carney said the Riverhead district uses the program “one day per year” for the school budget vote. Instead of using the system to mail election notices to voters, Ms. Carney said the district mails them to all addresses within the district.

Riverhead school board president Ann Cotten-DeGrasse told the News-Review in an interview this week that she supports the software because of its efficiency. She said that throughout her 32 years of teaching and her past experience as a teachers union president, there have always been concerns about the paper method of tracking voter records.

“On the day of the election, there would be three tables filed with voting records,” she said. “It was a real mess.”

Ms. Cotten-DeGrasse also denied the district has been involved in any illegal actions.

“To my knowledge, the school district has never used that system to call people and try to influence how the election goes,” she said.

During the public comment portion of Tuesday night’s Riverhead school board meeting, local resident and school board watchdog Laurie Downs discussed her concern about the software’s legality.

“You’re giving me the impression that you’re doing something illegal,” Ms. Downs said. “After all, you took an unpopular budget and an unpopular bond and it passed.”

Her exchange with the school board became heated when she took exception to board vice president Greg Meyer’s body language during her remarks.

Mr. Meyer responded, “You do great things for us, but when you stand here and say you don’t trust us, that bothers me. That’s why I’m shrugging my shoulders.”

The back-and-forth resulted in Ms. Cotten-DeGrasse’s slamming her gavel and calling for order. Ms. Downs ended her comments by saying she planned to contact Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota Wednesday morning.

After the meeting adjourned, the argument continued when Ms. Downs approached Mr. Meyer. It ended with him telling her, “Call Mr. Spota in the morning.”

“I invite him down,” Mr. Meyer said.

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with Paul Squire