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Three of seven school board candidates attend forum

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FORT COVINGTON - Of the seven candidates running for the Salmon River Central School District Board of Education, only three candidates –– all members of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe –– came to the Meet the Candidates Night this week sponsored by the St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Council’s Education Committee.

In an email sent after the forum, the committee backing three of the other candidates said their absence was the result of concerns over the legality of the event.

“The committee to elect Tammy Francis, Jon Pontius and Darrell LaPage was notified that the forum being conducted at Salmon River Central School may not be legal to be held at the district campus in accordance to school law.

“Because the candidates could not get clarification in time, the decision was made not to attend. We chose not to attend because we did not want to negatively impact the integrity of the school district as a non-partisan place to educate all children. We did not want to create even the appearance of impropriety,” the statement read.

Salmon River Superintendent Jane Collins said the SRCS Board of Education has a policy, in conjunction with New York State Education Law, that both supports the use of school property for community events like the Meet the Candidate evening and permits school district facilities to be open for a civic function where all of the candidates and the general public are invited.

Ms. Collins said that board policy states that in order to use a school district facility, one must submit an application to use the space. The St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Council did apply for the use of the auditorium for the event. Since the forum was open to all candidates and the general public for a civic function, it meets the standards for the facility to be used, according to Ms. Collins.

Sheila Marshall, Michael Conners Jr. and Jason McDonald were the three candidates who appeared and gave answers to the public’s questions. Incumbent board member Robert Durant, who has been absent from several Board of Education meetings due to unspecified personal reasons, also did not attend but did submit a response to one of the questions asked at the forum.

Tribal Executive Director of Education Stephanie Cook said she sent invitations to participate in Wednesday’s event to all of the candidates, and she requested that they send their biographies to her so she could include them in the packet the education committee was creating. Ms. Cook said she received no documents from the candidates who were not present.

Minerva White, an audience member and one of the first Native Americans to be seated on the SRCS Board of Education, told the roughly 20 audience members that she was deeply saddened by the fact all of the candidates were not present at the forum.

“I served on this board for 10 1/2 years. While we had some heated discussions, we always ended up working as a unit and most of all we respected one another, and I would like to see that on this board again,” Ms. White said.

“I am very disappointed that the other candidates did not show up. I had some questions for them and I would have liked to hear what they had to say and I was not provided that opportunity. I don’t think it is fair that we are all asking these board members what they are going to do on the board to promote fairness, equality and be unbiased. I do not see that here tonight. I think for you present, you need to think about that. You need to think about what kind of board members you want. People who will come up there and sit and express their views freely. I am very, very saddened, and I want the whole community to know that,” she said.

Ms. White received a round of applause for the comments.

Ms. Cook gave some closing remarks after the forum was over. Ms. Cook also said she thought it was unfortunate that the others were not present to share in their opinions and views, but stressed the invitation had been extended.

“The fact that we have people sitting here tonight and that you were here to listen to Mike, Sheila and Jason on kind of where they stand on some of the critical issues, I think it was wonderful and actually remarkable, because for me this is progress,” she said.

“We have not done an event like this to my knowledge, and we are going to do it again, year after year ... to continue to promote education and get active participation and involvement for our school community, because we are all here for the same reason, education of all the students in this district. That is what the bottom line is,” she said.

Seven candidates are vying for three seats on the SRCS Board of Education during Tuesday’s election.

Current board members Mr. Durant and Ms. Marshall are running for re-election, while Mr. Pontius, Mr. Conners, Mr. McDonald, Ms. Francis and Mr. Lapage are also seeking a seat on the board. Current board president Christopher Nye is not seeking re-election.

Ms. Francis, the former Fort Covington town clerk, lost to current board member Emily Lauzon - the other member of the tribe on the board — in a December special election to fill a vacant seat.

The tribe mounted a coordinated effort in the special election in which Ms.Lauzon defeated Ms. Francis. Some tribal members said at that time the effort was needed because the percentage of Native American students in the district is not reflected in the makeup of the school board.

Having more representation on the board is important to the tribe, tribal officials said, because 70 percent of the student population is from the tribe, but only 20 percent of district employees and 22 percent of school board members are Native Americans. Currently, of the nine school board members, only two seats are occupied by representatives from the tribe.

“It is important that next week on Tuesday, May 20th, that each person that is in this room, the challenge that I have been putting out personally is bring five or 10 people to the poll with you. It is important that people get out and participate in this election. It is your choice who you vote for, but the bottom line is to get out to vote,” Ms. Cook said.

The elections will be held from noon to 8 p.m. in the SRCS High School gym.

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