Tonawanda News — A contentious vote during North Tonawanda’s school board reorganization meeting had at least one member crying foul Tuesday, charging that local Republican political interests were a factor in deciding who should hold the nonpartisan board’s leadership posts.
The North Tonawanda Board of Education retained its president and nominated a new vice president by one-vote margins, indicating a possible rift among its members.
Frank DiBernardo held on for his second year as president in a 4-3 vote against Art Pappas, while Kevin LoCicero, a three-year board member who is entering his second term, was voted vice president after defeating Colleen Osborn by the same count.
The narrow split registered by the seven-member board suggests differences in its ranks. But it also, according to Osborn, signals the politicization of a governing body that normally precludes the influence of Republican and Democratic parties by its very nature.
Osborn said she had the backing of LoCicero after expressing interest in becoming vice president in mid-May.
LoCicero, however, said he recently informed her that he would himself be running for the post after speaking with the former head of the Niagara County Republican Party, Henry Wojtaszek — who advised LoCicero it would be a good political move to have the vice presidency under his belt as he eyes a possible run at the city council in the next few years.
“I had a conversation with Henry about the city council in the future,” said LoCicero, a registered Republican and longtime officer at the Niagara County Sheriff’s Department, soon after Tuesday’s vote. “(Am I) going to run for council in two years? I might, but I might also retire.”
While the agreement does not breach any legal precepts unless political donations are a factor, such blatant politicking on a nonpartisan school board is outside the norm, according to a representative of the New York State School Boards Association.
“From a statewide perspective we don’t see that as often,” said Jay Worona, general council to the association. “But my understanding is entities have the First Amendment right to endorse the candidate of their choice.”
Osborn, in an emotional foray to the board just after the vote, said the decision reeked of nepotism and adds to the plight of an already-ailing district, whose tests scores and graduation rates have slumped over the years.
“It’s time to take a hard look at at where as individuals we stand,” she said, “and ask yourself do you stand for the right things?”
Despite the rebuke from a fellow board member, LoCicero said he is a stalwart in defending the interests of the city’s school children and that his decision to seek a leadership post on the board was based purely on what he thought would be best for the district. He also defended his time on the board as altruistic and fingered state and federal cuts to school funding as the reason for the district’s recent financial difficulties.
“My commitment is to the school board,” he said. “My wife works in the district and my daughter just got married and I want her to raise my grandchildren here because I believe we have good schools. I have nothing against Colleen, I like her and I did support her initially. But this is not a popularity contest.”
Osborn said LoCicero had nominated her for the vice presidency in 2011 and had a lot of respect for him until Tuesday’s revelation. She also questioned whether the board has becoming a testing ground for those with political aspirations — rather than a group of concerned citizens working to improve the quality of education the city’s children receive.
“It’s certainly not what I signed up for,” she said. “I didn’t sign up to play politics. I signed up to be a mom on a school board. This whole situation is heart-breaking.”Contact reporter Michael Regan at 693-1000, ext. 4115.