Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Harrisburg School Board delays decision on new member.

The Harrisburg school board on Wednesday night booted a decision to appoint a new member until next week, as its members were unable to summon a majority vote for either of the two candidates vying for an empty seat.

The board held a special meeting to appoint a replacement for school board director Melvin Wilson, who died unexpectedly last month.

State law gives the board 30 days to fill a vacancy. Three hopefuls applied for Wilson’s seat, and two of them– Cornelius Chachere and Ralph Rodriguez – were interviewed by board members tonight in front an audience of two dozen people. (A third applicant did not attend the meeting.)

The board reached a stalemate when it came time to cast votes, since board director Lionel Gonzalez was absent, leaving only seven board members to participate in the appointment process.

Chachere secured four votes to Rodriguez’s three. But according to solicitor Samuel Cooper, a new member must be appointed by a majority of the whole board – in this case, five out of eight seated members.

School board policy does state that any new member must be appointed “by a majority vote of the remaining members of the Board.”

But state law, which trumps local board policy, is more ambiguous.

Section 315 of the Pennsylvania school code says only that a vacancy must be filled by a “majority” vote by the board. It does not specify either a majority of the remaining board members, or majority of those present for voting.

The board held three rounds of voting, but the results were the same each time: president Danielle Robinson, vice president Lola Lawson, and board director Patricia-Whitehead Myers cast votes for Rodriguez. Board directors Carrie Fowler, Judd Pittman, Brian Carter and Ellis Roy threw their support behind Chachere.

The stalemate was the latest display of acrimony from the factious board, which splits along the same allegiances on most major personnel and policy actions.

When it became clear that neither candidate would receive a majority of the board’s votes, Whitehead-Myers motioned to move the table the appointment until the board’s regular meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 22.

Since her motion was procedural, it only needed a majority vote from present board members. It passed with support from Robinson, Roy and Lawson.

If neither candidate receives five votes on Tuesday, the matter will likely go before the Court of Common Pleas, Cooper said.

Ten district residents can petition to court to fill the vacancy with a qualified candidate if the board does not do so within 30 days.

Members of the citizen-led school reform group CATCH (Concerned About the Children of Harrisburg) made clear that their support for Chachere, and said they were willing to petition the court to appoint him.

Chachere appeared before the board twice this summer to apply for vacant seats.

The nonprofit executive and former SciTech High School substitute teacher got the endorsement of the Harrisburg Education Association teachers union in June, when he applied for the seat that ultimately went to Whitehead-Myers.

The second time Chachere applied for a board seat, in August 2018, he received a standing ovation from dozens of audience members. But the board voted 5-4 to appoint Lawson, a past board president, instead.

Like his opponent, Rodriguez fielded questions from board members for about 10 minutes, detailing his motivations for a pursuing a board seat and what his priorities would be during the one-year term.

Rodriguez did not speak about his work or professional qualifications during questioning, but did say he was a Harrisburg High School graduate with children in the district.

As in past selection meetings, board members did not share the rationale for their individual votes.

The board will reconvene on Tuesday, Jan. 22 at 7 p.m. in the Lincoln Administration Building for its regular January meeting.

This article was edited to clarify that Rodriguez was not questioned about his occupation or professional background during his interview by school board directors. Resumes and application materials the candidates submitted for the board’s consideration were not made public.

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