School board interviews

School board applicants (from left) Naveed Baqir, Katie Gifford, Tim Kim and Claire O’Neal are interviewed by the board on earlier this month.

The Christina School Board has agreed to a do-over after determining that last week’s vote to fill a vacant seat violated state law.

The vote in question came Oct. 8 as the school board was choosing among four applicants seeking to fill the seat until May, when voters will select someone to fill the remaining four years of the term.

During a public session of the board, longtime board member George Evans made a motion to appoint Claire O’Neal, a district parent who serves as president of the Newark High PTA. Rather than cast their vote in public as is typically done by the board and other government bodies, the board members wrote their votes on slips of paper.

Board President Meredith Griffin announced that O’Neal had been appointed by a vote of 4-2, but he did not disclose how each individual member voted.

After discussing the vote with the board’s legal counsel, members determined a revote was necessary, Christina spokeswoman Alva Mobley said. The revote will most likely happen at the board’s November meeting.

“They realized after the fact that it was invalid because of the way it was done,” Mobley said, adding, “It wasn’t intentional.”

Mobley wasn’t able to explain why the board thought the secret-ballot vote was legal.

“Honestly, I don’t know why it was done,” she said.

Griffin did not return phone calls from a reporter seeking an explanation.

The looming revote is the latest step in an unusual set of circumstances that resulted from the resignation of Catherine Hegedus, who quit the board just minutes after being sworn in July 9.

Hegedus, who ousted two-term incumbent John Young in May, had announced during her campaign that she would not be able to serve should she be elected, due to family health issues that arose after the filing deadline passed. However, Hegedus decided to leave her name on the ballot to give voters a choice. Had she dropped out, the election would have been canceled, and Young would have automatically received a third term.

Voters weren’t deterred by the unusual circumstances, electing Hegedus by a landslide. The election saw the highest turnout for a Christina board election in the last 10 years, with Hegedus earning the most votes of any single candidate in that time frame.

After soliciting nominations for the vacancy, the board received four valid applications. In addition to O’Neal, those vying for the seat include Naveed Baqir, a software developer and community activist; Katie Gifford, an associate policy scientist at the University of Delaware; and Tim Kim, assistant director of student life for UD’s English Language Institute.

In August, the board appeared to indicate that it would interview the applicants behind closed doors, but later changed its mind.

“We got counsel that the best way to do it would be to do it publicly,” Griffin explained at the time. “While we can do it in executive session, publicly is the way we’re going to proceed with this current vacancy.”

On Oct. 1, the board held a public meeting in Bear, during which the four applicants spent 90 minutes answering questions from current board members.

O’Neal, a 40-year-old resident of Devon, said both her sons attend Christina schools – Shue-Medill Middle School and Newark High School – and that she has been involved with the PTA for a number of years. She was one of several district parents who spoke out prior to the May election, saying that the district needed a change from Young and urging voters to vote for Hegedus so the board could appoint a new member.

She said Christina’s biggest challenge is a lack of communication, noting that she spent a lot of time campaigning in support of the district’s referendum in May and found many people were misinformed about the district.

Changing the perception of Christina is crucial to its success, she said.

“My primary goal as a board member would be to reach out and communicate with our constituents and our stakeholders about all of the wonderful opportunities that await all children at Christina School District traditional public schools,” O’Neal said. “That’s how our communities grow and that’s how our communities blossom – by having a greater number of families stay in the district as opposed to choice out of the district.”

Still, she said, there are promising signs for Christina, such as news that enrollment is up this year at Newark High and Shue-Medill Middle.

“I think the Christina School District’s stature is on the up and up,” she said.

O’Neal said that her deep involvement in the school district as a parent and volunteer makes her an ideal candidate to serve on the board.

“I’m somebody who’s already familiar with the district, with district issues, district politics, building issues, and who also is a stalwart supporter of the district,” she said.

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