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Christina school board appoints O’Neal to fill vacancy

4-0 decision comes after first vote was declared illegal

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Claire O’Neal was appointed to the Christina School Board on Tuesday night.

The Christina School Board on Tuesday appointed Claire O’Neal to fill the vacant seat on the board.

O’Neal – the mother of two Christina students, president of the Newark High School PTA and a University of Delaware professor – will serve at least until May, when voters will select someone to fill the remaining four years of the term.

“It’s a challenging time ahead, but a very important time ahead,” O’Neal said after Tuesday’s meeting, during which the board began laying the groundwork for the next referendum. “The work this board does, and more importantly, the work that the people of the Christina School District do, is incredible.”

In addition to O’Neal, those vying for the seat included 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.

Tuesday’s vote marked the second time the board selected O’Neal. The first vote on Oct. 8 was done by secret ballot, putting the board in violation of state law and invalidating the decision.

Last month, rather than casting 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.

Making his first public comments about the secret-ballot vote Tuesday, Griffin explained that his intention was to avoid any bad feelings that could be caused by O’Neal knowing which board members voted against her.

“In a nutshell, we were trying to do the right thing, but we did it in the wrong way,” Griffin said. “We definitely weren’t trying to hide anything from anyone.”

A day after the vote, former board member John Young filed a Freedom of Information Act complaint with the attorney general’s office, alleging that the vote violated open-meeting laws.

“We got input from our counsel and counsel said, ‘Yes, you did that wrong,’” Griffin said.

On Tuesday, the board tried again, appointing O’Neal by a standard voice vote. The vote was 4-0, with board members Angela Mitchell and Elizabeth Paige absent.

“We absolutely have four people who I think could do it, but for me a person who’s been actively engaged in what is happening to make the district successful in one way or another, is one of the things that sways me,” Griffin said.

Board member Keeley Powell noted that O’Neal is the only one of the four candidates who has children in Christina schools.

“I know the challenges that we face and, as a parent who has children in traditional public schools, I could relate to a parent who has chosen to leave their children in the Christina School District and has been supportive of the district when things have been difficult,” Powell said.

O’Neal will fill the seat vacated by 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.

O’Neal 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.

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.

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