Anonymous website rips Niskayuna school board candidates

Niskayuna Board of Education candidates participate in a forum at Van Antwerp Middle School on Tuesday, May 5. (Rebecca Isenhart/Gazette Reporter)Niskayuna Board of Education candidates participate in a forum at Van Antwerp Middle School on Tuesday, May 5. (Rebecca Isenhart/Gazette Reporter)

BY REBECCA ISENHART
Gazette Reporter

NISKAYUNA — Just a few days before the Board of Education election and budget vote scheduled for Tuesday, an anonymous website called changetheboard.com that attacked candidates last year has reappeared with two new targets.

The site, decorated in a deceptively cheerful chalkboard theme, rips six-term candidate Barbara Mauro for her voting record and first-time candidate Barbara Burgess for public statements she has made at board meetings in the past.

It also dredges up old wounds, like the break between former superintendent Susan Kay Salvaggio and the board in 2013.

“Nobody wants to go back to this kind of stuff, to this kind of bickering,” said Mauro, who has been on the board for 18 years.

Bad blood in the community followed the mutual separation of Salvaggio and the board. The pugnacious atmosphere has largely subsided, marked by shorter, more civil comment periods at board meetings — but obviously some resentment lingered into the current election. This year, six candidates are vying for two seats. In addition to Mauro and Burgess, the candidates are Howard Schlossberg, David Koes, Danielle Scolaro and Brian Backus.

Former board president Deb Oriola was one of two incumbents whose terms ended last year, and the only one to seek re-election, without success.

“It was just kind of, get the big broom and sweep out the incumbent who’s running,” Mauro said.

Now, an anonymous entity self-titled “Change the Board” is using the power of the Internet in an attempt to capitalize on that housecleaning momentum by connecting Mauro and Burgess to ousted Oriola.

Neither candidate denies a connection to Oriola, but both say her record while on the board was more defensible than it has been portrayed. In one example, Mauro said while she and Oriola were both blasted for being part of the separation agreement with Salvaggio, both voted against renewing her contract the year before, a solution that would have been much less costly or controversial.

Burgess publicly stated in a Gazette editorial published before she became a candidate that she planned to vote for Oriola in the 2014 election. She said she supported Oriola’s stance against closing Birchwood school the previous year.

“With regard to Deb Oriola and Barbara Mauro, it just so happens that I feel that on some of the key controversial issues of the last few years, they have been on the right side,” Burgess said. “I have spoken out publicly to say so. It doesn’t mean that I agree with them all the time. It doesn’t mean that I’m not my own person,” she said.

Putting aside quibbles over the details of voting records and supposed alliances, current Board of Education President Pat Lanotte said she was disappointed by the echoes of past negativity represented by the website.

“It’s really unfortunate that folks would feel the need to personally attack people who are running for the school board and volunteering their time for the betterment of our kids and our district,” she said.

Burgess said anxiety over the acerbic tone of recent elections almost prevented her from running this year.

“Whoever is doing this is really harming our community because who knows how many people are sitting in their homes thinking, ‘I will never run for school board,’ who could have something wonderful to offer?” she said.

Neither candidate, nor Lanotte, believed the site was set up by a current candidate for the Board of Education.

Koes, a fellow candidate who was not named on the website, said even though freedom of speech is important in any election, an unclaimed attack prevents the two-way communication allowed by other forums such as signed newspaper editorials.

“The anonymous piece of it certainly makes it difficult to try and work with that person to find out why they’re upset,” he said. “In this particular case, you don’t know how to go back to that person or people and say, ‘Let’s talk.’ ”

Koes said he did not know who posted the website and doubted any of the candidates were involved.

“You know, I certainly would not want to be the recipient of that myself,” he said. “I believe everybody’s been getting along great.”

District communications specialist Matt Leon said posting an anonymous website with election-related content does not appear to break any election-related rules. There is a Code of Conduct in place for sitting Board of Education members, but none governing the conduct of candidates or their supporters.

Lanotte said she hoped the site wouldn’t pollute the community’s healing process in a year when things had appeared to be going more smoothly.

“It doesn’t really matter,” she said. “I trust the wisdom of Niskayuna voters and families to just say, ‘I’m going to rely on facts and I’m going to look to what’s happened this year and vote accordingly.’ ”