Island school officials mum on controversial software use

JULIE LANE FILE PHOTO | School Board President Dr. Stephen Gessner said Monday afternoon he’s unfamiliar with a Newsday story charging that Shelter Island School District purchased software that could be used illegally to track votes in real time.

Shelter Island, one of a dozen Long Island school districts named in a Sunday Newsday report about districts purchasing special software last year that allegedly aims to illegally influence voter turnout during budget votes, is silent today about the accusation.

The Newsday report cited the purchase of software either directly from Bold Systems LLC in Bellport or indirectly through Eastern Suffolk BOCES that does bulk purchasing of many products and services on behalf of area school districts.

The software enables districts to track voter turnout in real time, enabling school officials to generate call lists of voting blocs.

According to the Newsday report, the program is touted as being able to “track voter turnout in real time, and gives districts the ability to generate call to key voting blocs — PTA members, parents of students and others judged to be predisposed to approve budgets. But spending tax money to purchase such services is illegal under New York State law.

In an uncharacteristic response, Superintendent Michael Hynes would say only “no comment” when asked if the software had been purchased by and used by Shelter Island. Board President Stephen Gessner said he had no comment because he hadn’t seen the Newsday story and was unaware of the subject.

The Reporter subsequently filed a Freedom of Information request for any records the district might have of purchases of software either directly from Bold Systems LLC or BOCES.

An email form district clerk Jacki Dunning said the request is being reviewed and that if any such documents exist, they would be examined for “releasability” under the Freedom of Information Law. The emailed response promised the request would be granted or denied by May 20, the maximum time the district has to answer the FOIL request and one day before voters are due to go to the polls to act on the district’s budget.

Eastern Suffolk BOCES chief operating officer Gary Bixhorn said Bold Systems had been asked to deactivate any component of its software that violated state law.

In Riverhead, Superintendent Nancy Carney said the software is used there only as an electronic database for voter registration and management to avoid using the old “buff card” books for its 24,000 registered voters.

“We do not use the system to attempt to influence the outcome of the election,” Ms. Carney told the News-Review, the Reporter’s sister paper in Riverhead.

Shelter Island Board of Education members are due to convene at 6:30 p.m. tonight in the school library to continue work on the budget they will submit to voters May 21.