OPINION: Should LaPolla's Denial of Wrongdoing Satisfy Utica Taxpayers? 

The recent allegations made by a Utica City School Board (UCSD) candidate against the retiring UCSD Board of Education (BOE) President are alarming to say the least; but, are they true? Sadly, "Can the accusations be proven," is probably the more important question to ask if you're a taxpayer. Anyone can make accusations, but proving they are true is usually the toughest feat of all.

Still, I'm pretty sure that for some of the allegations or questions from Utica businessman and BOE candidate Howard Potter, the lack of answers from President Lou Lapolla, other board members, and Superintendent Bruce Karam could cast a very dark and ugly shadow on the district.

Potter is claiming that an unnamed source inside the district, who is credible and a witness to wrongdoing, is feeding him information that is leading to serious questions, Freedom of Information Laws (FOILs), and accusations.

Potter says he was told that the District assisted President LaPolla in his upcoming retirement dinner/fundraiser by printing some 5,000 flyers, paying for stamps and using a school district mailing list to invite current and former staff, friends of the district and vendors to his upcoming "Roast and Toast" on May 12th.

"I was told that staff in the district were the ones folding and stuffing the flyers into the envelopes and no-one wants to come forward because they're afraid they'll lose their jobs," Potter said. "They would have saved a ton of money (on postage) had they used an outside vendor like PJ Green," he said, adding that he was told postage stamps were purchased and used so that the expense would be nearly impossible to track.

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LaPolla vehemently denied the allegations during an interview with WIBX. "I didn't take any stamps from the school district," LaPolla said, "...and, I paid $800 out of pocket for the flyers." He said he has his own mailing lists from previous political campaigns and he and his daughter shared the expense for the postage. LaPolla also said that there weren't 5,000 invites sent out, but rather 1,500 to 2,000.

A Climate of Intimidation by the District is Alleged

Multiple sources have told WIBX that it is "well known" that employees are intimidated, pressured, and afraid to challenge certain board members and Superintendent Karam.

The one who is not fearful of retribution, Potter, is among them.  He said he's been told by multiple people that employees are pressured to place campaign signs on their lawns to support "the candidates they (the school district) want to win."

WIBX has reached out to Superintendent Karam several times for comment, but has not received a response as of this posting.

In addition to Potter, Michael Fellows is also running for a seat on the UCSD BOE.  Today, Tennille Koop announced her candidacy, running on platform of "Accountability, Communication and Transparency (ACT)."

Make Checks Payable to "LaPolla Testimonial"

The upcoming "Roast and Toast" for LaPolla should be an event to celebrate the former mayor's sixty years of public service to the region and the people of Utica. However, there are questions that do need to be answered with concrete proof, especially when potentially large sums of money are planned to be raised and given to charity or distributed in the form of scholarships.

The flyer directed people to pay $40 per person and instructed checks to be made out to "Lapolla Testimonial." The flyer also explains that the proceeds will benefit a scholarship fund in the name of LaPolla's late wife Andrea. Hypothetically, if everyone who received an invite responded with one attendee and a $40 check, the event would generate a gross amount of $80,000.

Potter FOILed the district for information about a possible mailing list and the printing and mailing of the invites and he was told by the district there were no documents because the District did not assist LaPolla in any way for this event. After receiving another tip from a source inside the district claiming to have knowledge of the situation, Potter has FOILed all expenses paid by the district that were associated with any expenditures for postage and mailing from the first of the year until now. He is awaiting a response regarding that FOIL, he said.

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Since Potter has been publicly asking questions and making accusations, WIBX has received additional complaints from sources inside the district that describe a culture of impropriety including, but not limited to, falsified employee records, no-show jobs, misappropriated funds, and improper contracts.

The accusations conveyed through Potter and others by an "anonymous whistleblower" must be taken seriously. Claims like these against public servants who are entrusted, not only with millions of dollars in public funds, but with the proper education of our young people, must be fully investigated and vetted.

Assuming all of these allegations are false, school districts in general, and specifically a district the size of Utica should be able to quickly squelch all of these wild accusations with well-kept documentation and a strict policy of checks and balances that accompany the management and transparency of such public entities.

In regards to the upcoming retirement roast, Mr. Lapolla with his years of experience as a trusted public servant, surely understands how to legally set up a fundraiser for a high school scholarship that includes the proper licensing, oversight, record-keeping, proof of purchase and receipts, as well as a proper audit of the fund so as to ward off any crazy and unfounded accusations of wrongdoing.

Here are some simple questions that the public deserves answers to before giving to the Lapolla "Roast and Toast."
• Where will the funds be deposited?
• Who is the legal custodian of that account?
• How much in funds have been raised prior to this event and how have these funds been used up until this point, i.e.: expenditures, disbursements, previous scholarships, etc.
• Who are the previous scholarship winners, how much were they awarded, and what criteria is used to select the winners?
• How will funds be expensed going forward?
• What is the calculated cost of dinner and gifts minus receipts?  Does the remaining balance go to the “Foundation or Charity”?
• Who will make these decisions?  Is there an internal auditor who will verify claims?
• Who will provide the due diligence over the funds?
• Who will audit the funds at the conclusion of the event(s)?
• Who are the parties responsible for the acceptance and dispensation of funds?
• What are acceptable or planned expenditures from these funds?
• Where will the portion of the funds or to be deposited to the “Foundation or Charity”?
• Who is the legal custodian of the charity?
• Will there be, or has there been, an audit of this entity?
• What - if any - school district resources including but not limited to postage, personnel, data sets, printing expenses, or other resources were used for this purpose?

[EDITOR'S NOTE: None of the claims made by Mr. Potter or others have been proven to be true. With the exception of Howard Potter, no source has agreed to be identified publicly by name. However, it is the author's belief that these matters are very serious and should be fully investigated independently in order to continue to maintain the public's trust in the Utica City School District.  The opinions presented in this opinion piece do not reflect the opinion or position of WIBX or Townsquare Media.]

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