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Auburn school board meeting goes from silent protest to shouting match
EDUCATION

Auburn school board meeting goes from silent protest to shouting match

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With a few exceptions, Auburn Enlarged City School District Board of Education meetings have attracted few if any members of the public over the last few years.

But since a district budget hearing in mid-May, residents have been turning out in increasing numbers to air out a variety of concerns. Those include the process involved in a possible renaming of the high school that was later paused by the board, concerns that board members were using their positions to implement their personal and political agendas, and complaints that the board has not taken school bullying seriously enough. 

On Tuesday, with the agenda including the election of a board president and vice president for the 2021-22 fiscal year, the high school library was packed for the board's regular meeting. By the time it was over, people were shouting and extra police officers had arrived.

Board members Ian Phillips and Dr. Eli Hernandez were voted to those respective roles at the beginning of the meeting. After the board moved through its routine agenda, the time came for the public to be heard portion, a change from the normal routine of taking public comments toward the start of meetings. Auburn district Superintendent Jeff Pirozzolo said one reason for moving public comment to the end of the meeting is that often, residents speak and then leave, but he said he would be available at the end of the meeting to answer specific questions.

Video from the public-to-be-heard portion of the Auburn Enlarged City School District Board of Education meeting held July 20.

Parent Rachel Czyz, who ran for a school board seat earlier this year, was the first person scheduled to speak. She introduced herself at the library's podium, and then said nothing. Instead, she and the other people lined with her held up folders with messages written on them such as "Accountability," "Transparency NOW," "YOU ARE NOT LISTENING" "We will be watching!" "Every child MATTERS" and "STOP HARASSING US."

This group, which included adults and students, stood in silence with their makeshift signs for over a minute before people in the back of the room, began humming the song "Lift Every Voice and Sing," which is often called the "Black National Anthem." One person in the crowd said they felt the humming was inappropriate. Another questioned how it was inappropriate, while others, including parent Michele Rivoli, interjected that the people humming needed to stop.

A woman in the group, who did not identify herself, spoke up to say her daughter had been attacked two days prior at a district bathroom. With her voice cutting through the room, she said her daughter had been bullied for years without anything being done.

As Czyz's time to speak expired, Rivoli then took to the microphone and spoke up, asking the board members to read the signs displayed, and saying the group would appreciate it if the board president didn't roll his eyes while the group was speaking. Rivoli then said the board uses "bully tactics" and addressed Phillips directly. Another voice chimed in with "Do you guys really care at all?"

"We can't engage when you bring individuals into it. I'd be happy to have a discussion when we close this meeting," Phillips said. He and Rivoli then spoke back and forth, and as another voice in the crowd spoke up, Phillips asked that one person speak at a time, noting there was a limited amount of time for public comments. Rivoli replied that the board extended time for people to speak in January, when various students and adults advocated for the high school name change at a virtual meeting.

"You extended the time when everybody was here supporting what your agenda was. In this particular case, you have intentionally tried to create a situation because you don't want to hear what we have to say. That's why we're trying not to talk," Rivoli said, using her folder to point at the board. "Because you don't hear us, because you don't care. It gets in the way of your own personal and political agendas. We've had enough, and we will be taking our concerns to the (state education) commissioner."

Following a pause, another voice spoke out in the crowd, and Rivoli said she would speak for that person. Phillips said she couldn't do that, and shouting filled the room until parent Elizabeth A. Cuddy took the microphone and moved to the podium.

Cuddy said "this is not about the name change" and that many more people beyond those at the meetings have concerns. 

"There are people who are afraid to come out and show their face and speak because they're afraid their children will be retaliated (against,) they're afraid they won't be employed by the district," she continued. "There are many, many more people, so please, I promise you, it is not just the people who show up to the meetings. There are many, many people intimidated."

Judy Garrett, a district employee, next came to the podium and defended Phillips and what he has done for the district, noting his efforts to advocate for more state aid. One person then asked Garrett if she was on the list to speak, which prompted more shouting.

"Order! This is a really, really bad example for our children," Phillips said, which prompted some claps from the audience. Rivoli shouted that Phillips was a bad example.

Phillips then said the 15 minutes set aside for public comments was up, and added that "we would love to extend the time, but we're not going to do it when people are shouting with each other," saying he would talk to people about their concerns. As Rivoli shouted that their group didn't need to be lectured, the board voted to adjourn the meeting.

Several people began yelling over each other at this point. A man in the crowd starting yelling at Hernandez, who got out of his chair and walked into the crowd. He and the man confronted each other, as concerns such as critical race theory came up. The man repeatedly said "You're dismissed" to Hernandez. Other verbal confrontations continued until school resource officer William Morrissey of the Auburn Police Department raised his voice to say that the meeting was over. The yelling dissipated somewhat and people started leaving the library.

By that point additional APD officers had arrived at the school, with around seven to eight patrol vehicles in the parking lot. Some officers were in the lobby while others were in the lot.

According to APD call records, Dia Carabajal called police at about 8:15 p.m. Tuesday to report what the call log classified as a fight at the high school. Carabajal, who was at the meeting and is a former school board member and former city councilor, is now the chair for the Cayuga County Democratic Committee. Phillips held that position for six years before he resigned from the role last month and soon declared his intention to seek the board presidency.

School resource officers have been present at school board meetings since May as crowds have become larger. But that will change.

Roger Anthony, APD deputy chief, said in an interview with The Citizen Wednesday that the department doesn't feel it is appropriate for SROs to be at those meetings and doesn't plan on having SROs at board meetings in that capacity in the future.

Road patrol officers would be at meetings if requested, but Anthony said the APD doesn't feel SROs should be at board meetings. 

"The school board is an elected body. If they're having political issues, that's not what the purpose of SROs are. Our SROs are there for the kids, for school security, for mentorship, for building relationships, and that's where we will place them," Anthony said.

Staff writer Kelly Rocheleau can be reached at (315) 282-2243 or kelly.rocheleau@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @KellyRocheleau.

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Education and City Reporter

Hello, my name is Kelly Rocheleau, and I cover the education and city beats for The Citizen and auburnpub.com. I've been writing for the paper since December 2016.

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