Objections to the seating of a newly-elected school director upstaged the Palmyra School Board’s long-awaited vote Thursday night on a $5,000,000 artificial turf athletic field upgrade that had been under consideration for 10 years.
Republican Suzan Gilligan won a spot on the board at the Nov. 5 municipal election, despite what some saw as racist comments she posted on social media between 2015 and 2017. Her comments were reported by the Lebanon Daily News two weeks before Election Day.
Unhappy residents started a post-election petition on change.org, asking “the Palmyra Area School Board to take any and all action necessary to prevent Ms. Gilligan from holding the position of School Director.” It had been signed by over 1,100 people by the time of the meeting.
District parent Alicia Matters presented the petition to the board during the meeting’s public comment time. She made it clear that she wasn’t there for athletic fields and turf.
“I am here because I now question the moral character of an incoming school board member,” she said to the almost full high school auditorium. “I was shocked to learn that Ms. Suzan Gilligan shared offensive memes, made racially biased comments, and has a strong disdain for those on public assistance.”
Board president Christopher Connell replied that the board had no power under the law to refuse to seat someone who had won a fair-and-square election. He agreed that Gilligan’s remarks were offensive and at odds with the fundamental values of the district and the community, and urged residents to continue to voice their unhappiness to her.
Resident Bruce Vernet acknowledged that the board had no power to undo an election, but appeared to publicly challenge Gilligan, who did not attend the meeting. “I am calling for the resignation of Ms. Gilligan to the school board. Do what is right for this community.”
Vernet also expressed unhappiness that the Gilligan controversy had become a distraction from the vote on the years-old athletic field turf project.
Resident David Warner agreed that the board was powerless to stop Gilligan from taking office. But, he said, “we can all speak up personally, as we are all doing here tonight. You can speak out and say ‘this is wrong,’ what Mrs. Gilligan has said is against the values of our community and who we are.”
Like Vernet, he publicly called Gilligan out. “At a minimum, Ms. Gilligan, you should show up at a school board meeting and explain why you said these things and what they really mean.”
Warner also leveled some indirect criticism at Palmyra voters. “Unfortunately, the voters, probably again, acting out of ignorance, voted often in a straight party line manner, and elected her.”
Several speakers expressed frustration that Ms. Gilligan had never, before or after the election, attempted to explain or defend her remarks.
Gilligan did not attend the meeting, and did not respond to LebTown’s telephone, email, and Facebook requests for comment.
The board voted seven to two to award contracts for the turf field upgrades, contingent upon receiving certain land use approvals. Directors Anthony Downey and Michael Ludwig cast the “no” votes.
Those who addressed the board on the athletic field proposal split into two factions: some wanted the outgoing board to vote immediately, while others wanted the vote delayed until the newly-elected members are seated, apparently expecting that they would tip the vote against the project.
David Warner has a financial interest in the ownership of LebTown’s parent company Lebanon Publishing Company. He has no involvement in editorial/newsroom operations, including this article.
An earlier version of this post included an image from the Change.org petition that was originally taken by the Lebanon Daily News. We have replaced the image with one from the district.