Unions, companies that bid on contracts with the district, school employees, political leaders and others poured more than $250,000 into Buffalo School Board candidates’ campaigns during the last two election cycles, a Buffalo News analysis shows.

But many of those donations are all but hidden from voters, due in part to an archaic finance reporting system handled almost entirely on paper – and in part to candidates who ignore the state law requiring them to reveal who donated to them and interest groups who ignore the law requiring them to disclose how much they spent to independently promote a candidate.

The News found several instances in which the state law designed to ensure transparency was blatantly ignored:

• Four years ago, when Christopher L. Jacobs ran for re-election to the Buffalo School Board, he raised $52,000 for his campaign – and did not disclose the identity of a single contributor, as state law requires.

• The same year, the Buffalo Niagara Partnership spent more than $26,000 on behalf of Jacobs and two other board members – even though the business group could legally spend no more than $25 per candidate.

• The following year, a downstate education reform group made its first foray into Buffalo School Board elections, spending $50,000 to promote a few candidates, by its own account. Not only did Education Reform Now ignore the $25 limit, but there’s no record of the group ever reporting its expenditures.

• The Buffalo Teachers Federation spent more than $13,000 in 2009 and 2010 to help get its favored candidates elected – but it’s likely the actual figure is much higher than that, due to ambiguities in some of the reporting, coupled with omissions in various candidates’ reporting.

With six of the nine Buffalo seats up for grabs this year, significant sums of money are expected to pour in again in the next two weeks leading up to the May 7 election. So far, signs indicate compliance with state law is as spotty as ever.

In the first round of required disclosures, two of the original 14 candidates submitted nothing. Another two filed paperwork but did not detail their donations. Another filed detailed paperwork but missed the deadline.

State education law requires candidates to disclose the name and address of each person or group that gave them money, along with the amount of each donation.

“The idea is for the public to be able to assess the degree to which elected officials and candidates are influenced by campaign dollars,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, a government watchdog group.

There’s no limit on how much anyone can give to a candidate.

But when any individual or group spends money on behalf of a candidate without the candidate’s approval, such as the Partnership’ helping Jacobs, a $25 maximum kicks in, and the person or group spending the money is responsible for disclosing it to the state.

Lerner was surprised to learn that School Board candidates’ disclosures are not available online.

“The whole point of disclosure is for the public to access the disclosures. Our election information should be at least as accessible as movie time schedules,” she added.

The News did its analysis by first compiling a database of contributions to candidates in 2009 and 2010. That required obtaining paper financial disclosure statements from Albany, cross-referencing them with files in City Hall and cross-referencing both of those with electronic reports disclosing contributions from political action committees.

Failure to itemize

Each Buffalo School Board member is paid $5,000 a year – but most board members raise at least that much trying to get elected.

Nobody in recent history has spent more than Jacobs, when he ran for re-election to the School Board in 2009.

He kicked in more than $17,000 of his own money – and raised more than $52,000 for his race.

“I wanted to be independent of the unions,” he said. “When you do that and you don’t have the resources that they provide, it takes a lot to independently get the word out.”

Members of Jacobs’ family donated a total of more than $4,000.

Nearly $30,000 more came from more than 400 other contributors. Among them: several City Hall staffers, including James Kane, the longtime chief of staff in the school district; a number of companies, including Ciminelli Development and Lamparelli Construction; many local political figures, including Grassroots leader Maurice Garner and former County Comptroller Nancy Naples-O’Neill; and an assortment of people active with local charter schools.

But when Jacobs filed his disclosures, the only contribution he detailed out of the $53,950 he raised was a $100 check from Citizen Action, an advocacy group with ties to the teachers union.

And then a local attorney working with a union-supported candidate filed a lawsuit to compel Jacobs to disclose his contributors.

“A huge amount of money was being spent, obviously. There were these wonderful multi-colored fliers going around. They were easily a dollar a pop,” said Peter Reese. “We wanted disclosure.”

In September – four months after the election – a State Supreme Court justice ruled in the case, ordering Jacobs to disclose who gave him money. In October, Jacobs submitted a list.

“We became aware through the lawsuit that you have to itemize for everything,” Jacobs said. “I was not aware of that. I filed the disclosures as directed from the instructions given by the Board of Education.”

Candidates can obtain instructions on filing their financial disclosures from the Board of Education or the Erie County Board of Elections. The instructions are identical from both places.

And those instructions have, in fact, for years directed candidates to itemize their expenditures – but said nothing about itemizing their donations.

Elections Commissioner Dennis Ward said the Board of Elections prepared the instructions years ago and updates them every year. He was not aware that the law requires disclosure of donations, he said when he was initially contacted by The Buffalo News.

“If that’s what the law is, then they have to report it,” Ward said. “If that’s what it is, then it’s a mistake. We should mimic whatever’s in the statute.”

On Tuesday, after his initial conversation with The News, Ward said that the Board of Elections has now updated information it provides School Board candidates, indicating that they need to disclose donations and expenditures.

A $25 limit

The Buffalo Niagara Partnership, under the moniker Buffalo Students First, in 2009 spent more than $26,000 on behalf of Jacobs, Catherine Collins and Florence Johnson – independent of the candidates, the group said.

A.J. Wright, the Partnership’s manager of government affairs, said the group is now aware of the $25 limit and “plans to do things differently” this year, possibly by donating money directly to the candidates.

In 2010, a national group based in New York City, Democrats for Education Reform, took an interest in Buffalo’s School Board race. The group’s executive director, Joe Williams, told The News at the time that his group planned to spend $50,000 on behalf of Jason McCarthy, Philip Lomax and Kinzer Pointer. Other sources later said the group also backed Vivian Evans.

Not only did the group apparently ignore the $25 per candidate limit, but it also never filed any disclosure report, local and state records show.

A spokesman for Democrats for Education Reform said the group had no comment at this time.

Union’s contributions

The Buffalo Teachers Federation has historically been the most consistent force in the city’s School Board elections.

What’s not so clear is how much the union actually spends.

Only two candidates in 2010 – Ralph Hernandez and Patricia Devis – reported getting any money from the union. In 2009, Devis was the only candidate to report financial help. Between the two, the union spent $12,932 in those two years.

Each of those years, the union endorsed a full slate of candidates, but none of the other candidates reported any financial help from the union.

But the union disclosed additional donations in a separate reporting system that’s required of political action committees. Among them: $1,000 to John Licata and $800 to Bryon McIntyre in 2009.

Other expenditures by the BTF – such as money paid to local printers around the time of the election – appear likely to be related to the School Board race in a given year, but the reporting system does not require the union to indicate whether it is.

Buffalo News Analysis

• In 2009, Christopher Jacobs raised $52,000 for his re-election campaign but only detailed one contribution of $100.

• The same year, the Buffalo Niagara Partnership spent more than $26,000 on behalf of three board members, even though the legal limit was $25 per candidate.

• In 2010, Democrats for Education Reform, a downstate group, spent $50,000 to promote a few candidates, ignoring the $25 limit and failing to report any of its expenditures.

• Only two candidates in 2009 and 2012 reported getting financial help – a total of $12,932 – from the BTF, but it’s likely the actual figure the union spent was much higher due to ambiguities in some of the reporting and omissions in other candidates’ reporting.