OpEd- Two Arrested Utica School Officials Should Infuriate Us All
The fact that two Utica City School District officials have now been arrested and charged with stealing taxpayer dollars for their own benefit is despicable and it should prompt all of us to ask some serious questions.
On Tuesday, November 21st, former Utica Mayor and previous School Board President Lou Lapolla was arrested for a second time in reference to wrongdoing regarding money collected for a fundraiser in his wife's name, and longtime School Superintendent Bruce Karam were arrested after a months-long investigation. Each face felony charges and according to NYS Comptroller Tom Dinapoli, these "officials allegedly used nearly $15K in school resources for political and non-school related causes."
Let's start by reiterating that all of the charges are allegations and everyone is considered innocent until proven guilty.
Now, let's speak about how we should all feel if the state proves its case against Mr. LaPolla and Mr. Karam.
It's important to remember that Utica is a school district that has consistently lacked resources. There have been countless stories about teachers not having supplies and enough text books for all students. We've heard that in some cases, text books had to be illegally photocopied so there would be enough to go around. Meanwhile, New York State and the County DA's office is alleging that these two school officials were using school funds to secure their positions by electing "friendly" board members? They were allegedly using school funds to send out political mailers and reportedly forcing staff members to carry out these "personal tasks" while they were allegedly working on the taxpayer's dime?
This is the type of "old Utica" corruption being alleged that we as a community and a region should absolutely not tolerate. Shame on anyone who would do this, and shame on anyone who would see this behavior and look the other way. If it's proven that the accusations are true, then we as a community should consider this the line in the sand that signifies the absolute end to corruption, in a city that sadly thought it had put such nefarious behavior in a time capsule that was buried many years ago. Furthermore, if a guilty verdict is found, it must lead to additional questions which have to be answered, so that we prevent something like this from ever happening again.
When Joe Hobika Jr. became a member of the board, he was quickly at odds with Superintendent Karam and the board majority. He was consistently asking questions, and demanding answers - all of which seemed to fall on deaf ears. He was alarmingly ridiculed, overruled, and out-voted over and over again when he asked for policies that would lead to transparency. He and other minority members were rejected when outside audits were requested. You simply needed to watch the school board meetings online to see the extreme tension between Karam and his majority versus Hobika and the minority.
You have to wonder, why would board members vote with Karam to prevent audits, and third party inquiries? Accusations in the indictment are that Karam would use school funds to help get "friendly" board members elected - albeit to a non-paid position, why would they stick their necks out for Mr. Karam? Were there promises made to these board members? Did any board members know that allegedly illegal activity was being conducted by Karam? Who knew what, when did they know, and what did they do? These are all fair questions.
It wasn't until Hobika created his own new majority, and became the new Board President that investigations started being approved by the board. This is when we all began to get a glimpse behind the curtain at the Superintendent's office. Independent audits of finances and expenses uncovered irregularities, and processes to guarantee transparency were not being followed. Then, secret recordings of abusive behavior towards staff members, women, and minorities were leaked to the media, and this was just the beginning. Soon after, in October of 2022, Mr. Karam was placed on administrative leave while an independent investigation was conducted into a complaint from two employees, who claimed they were being treated abusively by Karam.
What about the reports of teachers and staff being afraid to speak up because they claimed to be fearful of retribution? How about the reports of no-show jobs? What about the allegations of board members receiving special favors, that might have included the hiring of family members? Was any of this true? Were any of these jobs "no show" jobs? Are any of these activities illegal, or are they simply unethical?
In one case, a person running for a board seat claimed that someone at the district had been given several paid positions as an advisor to clubs, but there were never any students allowed into the clubs and therefore, there were never any meetings? Was this accusation of "no show clubs" true? A number of these club appointments would certainly boost an employee's salary.
DA Scott McNamara said some of these questions are actually part of a different investigation, and therefore couldn't be commented on. He added that some of the other allegations came to his office unsigned, some were unfounded, unprovable, or not worth acting on. He did say his office can only investigate complaints that are signed, in which a person with knowledge is willing to be interviewed by the DA's office.
As the smoke starts to settle on the allegations against these two trusted public servants, I'm sure there will be many more questions. Taxpayers and parents in Utica, the current Board of Education, and the media, should be vigorous in the questions posed going forward because if true, the students, parents, teachers, and taxpayers were being robbed in broad daylight. There also must be some people "in the know" who must have felt this behavior was acceptable, or at the very least tolerable. But I have to ask, tolerable to what end?
Credit should be given to the current Board of Education. The BOE released a statement to the public during a special meeting on Tuesday assuring people that since Mr. Karam has been placed on administrative leave, the district has "taken aggressive and proactive steps to overhaul (their) administrative operating structure, hire necessary staff, and overhaul and implement guardrails and protective measures to ensure the type of egregious and illegal misconduct outlined in the indictment, doesn’t happen in (the) district in the future."
So now, we're left with the obvious question - were the arrests on Tuesday the end of this inquiry, or, could more charges and arrests be coming? We posed that question to the Investigator at Comptroller DiNapoli's office, and Oneida County DA Scott McNamara and they both responded with the same answer - "I can't answer that question at this time."
Meanwhile, this shameful saga continues to be registered into Utica's archives for future historians to look back on.
Some things to note - a decision has yet to be issued regarding a lawsuit filed by Karam against the district in Federal Court. Also, the district has scheduled a special meeting of the BOE on Monday evening, November 27th, to discuss Mr. Karam's employment with the district.
Opinion. Bill Keeler is host of First News with Keeler in the Morning on WIBX.
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