Election complaint filed in York City school board race

Junior Gonzalez
York Dispatch
Election Day in York City, Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Days before a reorganization meeting that will include the swearing-in of three new York City school board members, county officials are reviewing whether one of them violated state election laws.

A complaint was filed Nov. 27 with the York County Department of Elections in the York City School District school board race, challenging the write-in victory of Tanoue Onishi Sweeney, an employee of the school district.

The challenge, filed by former York City School District board member and write-in candidate Jose Santiago, alleges Sweeney, a poll worker during the Nov. 7 election, "actively solicited write-in votes while working the polls."

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According to York County Assistant Director of Elections Sally Kohlbus, Sweeney was a machine inspector, a responsibility that includes assisting people in using voting machines.

Write-in candidates can serve as poll workers on Election Day, said Nikki Suchanic, director of the York County election department. 

Candidates on the ballot are asked not to serve as poll workers, Suchanic added.

However, electioneering, or campaigning, is prohibited within a polling place, according to the Election Code.

Sweeney was elected with 138 votes in the Nov. 7 municipal election, according to official election results. The precinct she worked at received the second-highest number of write-in votes of all the district's precincts, the results show.

She defeated Santiago, who did not file paperwork to appear on the ballot but decided to mount his own write-in campaign.

Suchanic forwarded the complaint to York County solicitor Glenn Smith, who did not respond to a phone call and message seeking comment.

Calls to Santiago for comment were not returned.

Another issue for Sweeney is her employment status with the school district.

Reached on Thursday, Nov. 30, school board President Margie Orr said she believes Sweeney is employed by the district and is president of the district's Educational Support Professionals union, which represents mostly non-teaching workers at the district.

Section 324 of the Pennsylvania School Code prohibits people from serving as a board member of a school district they are employed in.

"Even being a coach doesn't pass the smell test," said Pennsylvania School Boards Association Member Services Counsel Emily Leader.

If a district employee is elected to the school board of the district they are employed in, they must choose between the two.

"They have to pick," Leader said. "You have to get rid of what disqualifies you."

Sweeney, who could not be reached for comment, posted several times on her Facebook account about her write-in campaign, including several requests to help her pass out paper flyers near a district polling place.

In one post, she defended her eligibility by stating she can be sworn in if she first resigns from her position at the district.

"Just want to make sure everyone can make a more informed decision," the post states.

It’s not clear if Sweeney has done that.

Repeated requests to confirm her employment were not returned by an acting York City School District spokeswoman. 

A call to York City School District board solicitor Jeff Gettle was not returned.

As of now, Sweeney, civil rights investigator Tonya Thompson-Morgan and former Helen Thackston Charter School board member Lisa Kennedy are scheduled to be sworn in as new board members.

The York City school board reorganization meeting will take place at 6 p.m.  Wednesday, Dec. 6, at the district’s administration building, 31 N. Pershing Ave.

— Reach education reporter Junior Gonzalez at jgonzalez@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter @EducationYD.