UPDATE (11:30 p.m.): Who knows if the results will actually stand, but for now, the Ithaca City School District will have two new Board of Education members after Tuesday’s election.
Despite polling confusion aplenty, described below, challenger candidates Karen Yearwood (2,799 votes) and Jill K. Tripp (2,604 votes) finished first and second in voting Tuesday, followed closely by incumbent Erin Croyle (2,584 votes). Fellow incumbent Eldred Harris (1,292 votes) finished fourth, securing another term on the board as the top four finishers will assume or retain positions on the board.
No other comment, on the circumstances surrounding the vote, was provided along with the results.
Based purely off the results, the biggest story of the night is the ousting of Robert Ainslie (1,076 votes), the board’s long-serving president. He finished in sixth place, just ahead of last-place finisher David Shapiro (1,030 votes).
Fifth-place finisher Benjamin Mumford-Zisk (1,077 votes) secured one single vote more than Ainslie and just 215 fewer votes than Harris, though his election day was riddled with strange circumstances. Signs appeared at polling locations around the district that stated Mumford-Zisk had withdrawn from the race, leading to widespread confusion when Mumford-Zisk rejected the claim on social media and at least some voters saying they would have voted for Mumford-Zisk had the signs not been present.
Yet Mumford-Zisk has already acknowledged that he wouldn’t be able to serve on the board because of the one-year residency requirement, which is listed as one of the school district’s requisite candidate criteria.
Beyond the candidates, three of the four ballot propositions passed easily, including the 2022-2023 annual budget far surpassing its necessary threshold of 60 percent approval with almost 70 percent YES votes.
However, ballot proposition 4, regarding the sale of outside property next to Beverly J. Martin School to the City of Ithaca by the district for GIAC’s gym expansion, failed by quite a bit: NO secured 2,129 votes to 1,366 YES votes. That proposition had fueled backlash on a number of levels.
The board is scheduled to meet Wednesday, May 18 at 6:30 p.m. to certify the results of the election, which could give another opportunity for comment on Tuesday’s proceedings from either the board or officials. (Update: Here is our coverage of the meeting on Tuesday)
More on one of the strangest local elections in recent memory below.
ITHACA, N.Y.—Handing out detentions as punishment is not nearly as frequent as it once was, with local school administrations opting instead for other forms of discipline. Yet the Ithaca City School District may deserve one after a bizarre Board of Education election on Tuesday. At least a good old-fashioned seat in the corner.
To jump right into it, there are three main issues that arose during election day, in which people can still vote until 9 p.m. on Tuesday: first, some voters weren’t sure where to vote, including heading to locations that weren’t holding voting at all; second, signs were hung at actual polling locations incorrectly stating that a challenger candidate, Benjamin Mumford-Zisk, had withdrawn his candidacy (he has confirmed to The Ithaca Voice that he never did); third, some signs around polling locations also instructed voters to limit their number of candidates to three, when in reality voters could have selected four candidates.
The situation has many around the community theorizing that the election could be outright nullified and rescheduled as a result of the wild circumstances.
Additionally, in a late-day development, multiple sources have now said that certain polling locations have run out of ballots and have told voters to either wait or come back later. Results and any statement on the election will be posted in an update to this story when they are released, some time after 9 p.m. Tuesday night.
Mumford-Zisk’s situation is complex, but also the most damning in terms of election integrity, as signage effectively disqualified him pre-emptively from the race—though in another odd twist, he very likely wouldn’t have been able to serve on the board if elected anyway.
Mumford-Zisk, one of four challenger candidates and seven total, began his candidacy on April 25, when he decided to run for the school board, and spent April 27 getting signatures and turned the total number in by the end of the day. Mumford-Zisk said he then signed a document he thought was to signify that he had submitted his signatures (Mumford-Zisk admits he didn’t read the document), but it was actually a document declaring that he met all required criteria to be a candidate.
During a discussion with District Clerk Tricia Beresford on that occasion, Mumford-Zisk claims he offhandedly mentioned that he had “recently returned” to the district and wanted to get involved in the community as his motivation for running. The phrase is even in his candidate bio.
“I’m kind of taken aback that that didn’t prompt at least a question of ‘How long have you been here?'” Mumford-Zisk said. He was unaware at the time that the requirement was anything more than 30 days of residence. “Given how important this is, apparently, to the district.”
Fast-forward to Tuesday morning, just before voting began, when Mumford-Zisk received a call from Beresford informing him that he wasn’t eligible to run because of a residency requirement. Mumford-Zisk challenged that, but was then told by a “lawyer for the district” that he indeed does not meet eligibility due to his residency status.
Mumford-Zisk acknowledges now that, according to the law, he isn’t eligible to be on the board. That is because, despite spending the majority of his life living in Ithaca, he has only been back as a permanent resident since moving back to the area in February—board requirements state that candidates must have been residents of the school district for one continuous year before being eligible to take office.
Still, Mumford-Zisk said he was told by that lawyer that in order to withdraw, he would have to put it in writing in some way. But in his mind and per advice he was given by friends, the worst that could happen is just the next highest vote getter would move up a slot if he was disqualified post-election. So Mumford-Zisk never did withdraw. It was shortly after that call, and shortly before the polls opened at noon, when he started to receive messages about the signs at polling places stating boldly that “BENJAMIN MUMFORD-ZISK has withdrawn his candidacy for the Board of Education. Any votes cast for BENJAMIN MUMFORD-ZISK will not be counted” under the heading “Important Polling Information.” His name was also crossed off of some sample ballots.
“Whether it happens before or after, having it not happen on the day of the polls is the big thing,” Mumford-Zisk said.
Several voters expressed bewilderment via social media at the conflicting messages, having come home from the polls thinking that Mumford-Zisk had dropped out of the race—only to see on Mumford-Zisk’s own Facebook page that he had not.
“I would have voted differently if I had known,” said Pam Hanna, who was also dismayed at polling signs that informed voters they could only vote for three candidates, even though there were four open spots on the Board of Education and voters can make four selections. Later voters said some of those signs had been changed with Sharpie as the day went on. Hanna also went back to voice her concerns to polling place workers but was told she could not change her vote.
ICSD officials have not responded for comment since around 12 p.m., despite several attempts to reach them. ICSD Board President Rob Ainslie told The Ithaca Voice that the Board of Education was not involved in the making or posting of the signs about Mumford-Zisk.
Several sources, including Ithaca Teachers Association President Adam Piasecki, have stated that “central office administrators” were seen distributing the signs for posting at polling locations, meaning ICSD officials. Mumford-Zisk was one of four candidates that the ITA had publicly endorsed through its PAC.
“Unforced error is exactly right,” Mumford-Zisk said, implying that the district wouldn’t have wanted him in office due to his challenger status. “They had this in the bag. I can’t be in office, they just needed to take their hands off the wheel and it would have gone the way they wanted.”
New York State United Teachers has been in touch with the school district regarding the legality of the election proceedings, according to Piasecki, though he did not know the specific content of those discussions. Piasecki said he has not had contact with the district.
“One of the NYSUT attorneys was in touch with the school district to discuss the legality around them being able to put up a sign stating that someone has withdrawn their candidacy when they have not done that,” Piasecki said. “Then the question about being able to say a vote wouldn’t count when the person was already certified and on a ballot for today. Questions of eligibility usually surface post-election. So that’s the concern in-hand for us.”
Telling the public that a candidate is off the ballot when they are not would seem to delegitimize the entire election, at least from a Board of Education perspective (there were also four other ballot propositions, including the annual budget, being decided today). But to this point there has been silence from the district, and there is also confusion regarding who or what governing body would have to call a re-vote, or even what the procedure would be to do so.
The NYSUT and the New York State Education Department have both not responded to requests for comment.