Juan Saez accepts that he lost the recent Cape Henlopen school board election.
What he doesn't understand is why his bus contract with the district became an issue.
“If I had just been able to run, that would've been fun,” Saez said. “But it turned out to be a hassle. I don't think a lot of people were aware of what was being said to me.”
After receiving complaints from residents, Sussex County Department of Elections and Cape Henlopen School District both looked into whether Saez's run for school board presents a conflict of interest because he has a bus contract with the district.
While his four opponents were out campaigning, Saez said, he was dealing with advice from the Department of Elections, Cape school district and the Attorney General's Office on whether he could legally run. He said he had to tell the company making his election signs to hold off his order three times while he considered withdrawing.
At issue is a state law that states, “No person shall be elected or serve as a school board member who holds a paid position which is subject to the rules and regulations of such school board.” However, case law allows a person to run as long as they give up their position or contract if elected.
A bus contractor signs a contract with the school district, which is approved by the state, said Richard Stapleford, president of the Delaware School Bus Contractors Association. The state law would apply to a school district bus contractor, he said.
Saez owns three buses that serve Cape school district. Before filing to run for school board, Saez said he consulted with former board member David Truitt who had been a bus contractor a few years before he ran for school board. Helen Truitt said the bus contract was in her name when David won consecutive school board terms.
Two weeks before Saez filed for school board, he said, he spoke with Superintendent Robert Fulton who he said was encouraging.
“Everything was fine. He said it's great that I was running,” Saez said.
A couple of weeks later, however, Fulton told Saez that the district's attorney determined running while he had a bus contract was in violation of state law.
A few people questioned whether it was a conflict for a bus contractor to run for school board, Fulton said.
“At no time did I ask Juan to withdraw,” Fulton said. “I wanted him to understand there was a conflict.”
The Sussex County Department of Elections received about five complaints from people questioning Saez's school board run, said Director Ken McDowell.
McDowell contacted the Attorney General's Office for an opinion; in an email sent to McDowell from Deputy Attorney General Robert Willard, Willard agrees there is a conflict, but said, “a person holding a position 'subject to rules and regulations' of the board may run for election to the board, but if the person wins the election, he or she must choose to serve on the board, or maintain his or her position, but may not do both.”
McDowell said he spoke with Saez several times about state law regarding bus contracts. At times, he said, Saez sounded as if he was going to drop out of the race. McDowell said has no issue with Saez as a person or candidate, and he never put pressure on Saez to withdraw.
“He was within the limits to run for election,” he said. “We made him aware of the law.”
Even if there was no overt pressure to withdraw, Saez said he believes there was an underlying current.
Saez said he intended to put his buses in his wife's name if he won the election as Truitt had done, but he wanted to win before he made the change. Putting the buses in his wife's name, however, was never mentioned as an option by officials who contacted Saez; it is withdrawing that was discussed, he said.
“If I won, I was going to put everything in my wife's name, but we had to get there first,” Saez said.
Cape school board President Spencer Brittingham said the board saw no copy of the Attorney General's letter, and he was unaware of pressure put on Saez to withdraw from the race. The board did not discuss whether Saez should run, he said.
“We didn't have any issue with Juan running for election,” he said.
Saez lost a five-way race for school board by 268 votes. He came in second to winner Alison Myers of Lewes. He said he congratulates Myers' win and thanks the other candidates for running a clean election.
Still, he said, he wishes there was less behind-the-scenes drama.
Candidate Terri Carey said she received a blocked phone call from someone who said they didn't vote for Carey because they did not want another black man on the school board. In other words, a vote for Carey would mean a vote for Saez. Brittingham and board member Noble Prettyman are African-American.
“They hung up, and I was in shock,” Carey said. “I'm upset with how people think.”
Carey said she called Saez personally to tell him about the phone call. A life-long resident of Milton, Saez said he went to school at Cape and never chose his friends based on the color of their skin. It's sad that people in this day and age still hold those prejudices, he said.
“This is the first time I put my hat in the political ring, and then when I heard about the phone call, that's really disturbing,” Saez said.