He had a standing ovation, an endorsement from a union president, and the support of former students – but it wasn’t enough to land Cornelius Chachere a seat on the Harrisburg school board.
Harrisburg’s eight-member board on Monday night passed over Chachere, a nonprofit executive, and two other candidates to appoint Lola Lawson, a former board director, to serve a term through 2019.
Lawson replaced board director Tyrell Spradley, who resigned his seat in July without explanation. Spradley was just appointed to the board in February.
Members of the 70-person audience reacted immediately to the appointment, exasperated by what they perceived as an opaque selection process that favors friends of the district administration.
Lawson was the second board veteran appointed to the body in the past month. Former board director Patricia Whitehead-Myers was appointed to a vacant seat last month.
Lawson has almost a decade of experience as a board director, but Chachere, who has worked as a substitute teacher at Harrisburg High School’s John Harris Campus, was the apparent crowd favorite. He garnered applause during his questioning before the board, and more than half the room gave him a standing ovation when his interview concluded.
But the board still voted 5-3 to appoint Lawson. After votes were tallied, young district alumni led a chant calling for justice, and one resident brandished a poster board sign saying, “We Call BS.”
Even though Chachere had wide public support, many residents said they were not surprised by the vote.
“Clearly this is the outcome of collusion,” said Charla Plaines, co-founder of the citizen-led school reform group C.A.T.C.H. (Concerned About the Children of Harrisburg.) “It does not reflect the will of the public. Once again, this board has proven it has no desire to do the right thing.”
One board member joined the residents voicing frustration over the appointment process. Before the board began interviewing candidates, director Brian Carter accused his colleagues of accepting bribes before filling a vacant seat last month.
“There were several conversations where board members were trying to bribe other board members to vote for certain candidates,” Carter said, without identifying any of his colleagues by name.
Carter declined to comment on his accusation during a recess, but reiterated his claim at the end of the meeting. He said that board members tried to persuade their colleagues to vote for Whitehead-Myers and Lawson.
But board solicitor Samuel Cooper said that political lobbying is not necessarily bribery.
“Unless there’s some transfer of money or promise of future gain, there’s no bribery,” Cooper said.
Along with Whitehead-Myers, Lawson was among the first members of the re-formed school board that wrested the district back from mayoral control in 2010. Former Mayor Stephen Reed had taken direct oversight of the school district in 2000, the first arrangement of its kind in the commonwealth.
Mayor Linda Thompson assumed Reed’s role briefly following her election in 2010 before community members reconstituted the elected board of directors.
Lawson declined to seek re-election for her seat in 2013 but was appointed back to a vacant seat the same year.
In her interview before the board tonight, Lawson touted a long history of public service, which she said started with her first sit-in demonstration at age 14.
“My heart is in the right place,” Lawson said. “I’m a strong, independent thinker. You can’t sway me… but I’m still willing to collaborate with people.”
Lawson was president of the board that terminated superintendent Gerald Kohn in 2010 and replaced him with Knight-Burney. Kohn later filed a wrongful termination suit against the district that ended in a $2.4 million settlement in his favor.
Lawson and Whitehead-Myers also voted with three of her colleagues to strip former school board president Roy Christ of his leadership title in 2011.
A retired broadcast personality and media consultant, Lawson served alongside current board directors Whitehead-Myers, Ellis Roy, Melvin Wilson and vice president Danielle Robinson until 2016, when she declined to seek re-election for her appointed seat. They all voted for their former colleague on Monday, along with director Lionel Gonzalez.
Board president Judd Pittman and directors Carrie Fowler and Brian Carter voted for Chachere.
Claude Phipps, a former business executive, and James Thompson, an architect and former board director, also applied for the vacant seat but did not receive nominations.
Phipps, Thompson and Chachere all applied for the vacant seat that Whitehead-Myers took in July. At the July 28 selection meeting, teacher union president Jody Barksdale urged the board to appoint Chachere.
Community members continued to advocate for Chachere in the public comment period at the end of tonight’s meeting.
“When you look at this man, how could you sensibly make the decision that you did?” said Joelle Ewing. “It looks suspicious, like you don’t want anyone who will go against the grain. I don’t understand it.”