Buffalo School Board elections for years have attracted few voters, with the fate of the school district left to just the diehards who bother to cast ballots.
Three years ago, in fact, half of the six races were decided by fewer than 70 votes apiece. In a fourth race, the incumbent ran unopposed.
This year, however, is shaping up to be different.
Widespread community frustration with the district’s chronically low test scores and perennially low graduation rates seems to be at nearly an all-time high. Nine months into a new superintendent’s tenure, many people feel that little of substance has changed in a system plagued by dysfunction.
And increasingly, people in the community are seeing the School Board as a potential or even necessary vehicle for change.
This year, six of the nine board seats are up – enough for a majority to emerge and chart a direction for the district in what many consider to be a pivotal year.
And one of the candidates in the mix, one of the wealthiest and most outspoken people in the region, has attracted an unprecedented amount of attention to the race – and along with it, plenty of speculation as to how he plans to engineer a majority on the board.
Developer and former GOP gubernatorial nominee Carl P. Paladino says he’s not planning to run a slate but adds that he will support other candidates he feels are “good people.”
One thing is clear: Paladino’s platform bears a striking resemblance to the agenda put together by a group of parent leaders in the district.
Nobody seems willing to say directly whether he and the parents group – many of them leaders in the District Parent Coordinating Council – plan to coordinate campaign efforts or strategize together if they’re elected.
But some address the question indirectly.
“There will be a lot of unholy alliances,” said Bryon J. McIntyre, who plans to run against Mary Ruth Kapsiak, the current board president, for the Central District seat.
Like some other candidates who have the support of a coalition of parent leaders, McIntyre will not say definitively whether he plans to accept money from Paladino. He acknowledges that he’s talked with Paladino but won’t discuss details.
Among their shared goals: a return to neighborhood schools; reinstatement of the teacher residency requirement; greater parent involvement in decision-making; and a local version of a parent trigger bill, under which a district school could be turned into a charter school if a majority of the parents in the building agree to it.
The District Parent Coordinating Council, led by Samuel L. Radford III, is not allowed to endorse particular candidates, given that it’s a committee of the School Board itself. But many of the group’s leaders have formed an informal outside group that has been vetting potential candidates.
So far, that group has identified five candidates who seem to share its priorities, according to Radford, including McIntyre, a DPCC vice president.
Others include: in the North District, Wendy Mistretta, a former Buffalo State College administrator who has been an active parent at International School 45 and the DPCC parliamentarian; in the Ferry District, Patricia Elliott, who also has been active in the DPCC as well as an active parent at Waterfront Elementary; in the West District, James Sampson, president and CEO of Gateway-Longview and chairman of the county’s control board; and Theresa Harris-Tigg, an assistant English professor at Buffalo State College.
Radford is clear about the strategy: Work to elect five people who share the parents’ agenda – enough for a working majority. When he counts the number of candidates who seem to share those goals, he does not count Paladino among them – nor does he count Paladino as an opponent.
Radford, like many of the candidates he says share his agenda, carefully avoids talking directly about how closely, if at all, those candidates will align with Paladino during the campaign or afterward. The focus right now, he says, is collecting enough signatures to get candidates on the ballot. Each one needs to submit 500 valid signatures by the first week in April.
“At this point, we don’t want to be drawn into anybody’s camp,” Radford said. “We’re not in Carl Paladino’s camp. We’re not in the reform camp. We’re not in the union camp. Everybody who agrees with the parent agenda, we’re going to work with them.”
Historically, the Buffalo Teachers Federation has been the heaviest hitter in the city’s School Board elections. The union provides financial support as well as phone banks for candidates it backs.
President Philip Rumore said the union has not yet decided which candidates it will support this year, but soon will interview candidates. Three years ago, the BTF backed Ralph R. Hernandez, who is running for re-election this year in the West District, and Kapsiak, among others.
Of the six incumbents, only one – Louis J. Petrucci in the Park District, where Paladino lives – has decided not to seek re-election.
Two of the incumbents, Sharon Belton-Cottman in the Ferry District, and Rosalyn L. Taylor in the East District, will be running campaigns for the first time this spring, as both were appointed to their seats on the board to fill mid-term vacancies.
As much as the parent slate feels the district needs a change of direction, the incumbents feel it’s essential that they be given more time to continue their work.
“This is going to be a community effort to keep me in place, and to keep Ruth and Roz in place, because we need to keep moving this agenda forward, not taking the time to go retro, or taking the time to stall,” Belton-Cottman said. “We need to be about taking care of business in this district, and we feel we need to do that with the three of us in place again.”
Jason M. McCarthy, in the North District, has already launched a fundraising effort considered massive in the world of Buffalo School Board races. A recent fundraising event at the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural Site raised $13,000 for his re-election effort, he said.
“That’s serious, and we still have a lot of work to do and a lot more people to come out and support us,” he said. “I’m feeling very confident.”
Three years ago, McCarthy and a few other candidates received heavy support from Education Reform Now, an arm of Democrats for Education Reform. The downstate group pumped tens of thousands of dollars into the race, loading voter mailboxes with slick, full-color postcards that eclipsed even BTF efforts in the race.
Speculation is running high among some candidates that the group will again commit significant resources to the Buffalo School Board elections this year. Whether that will happen is not clear. Joe Williams, the executive director of Democrats for Education Reform, did not respond to messages seeking comment for this story.
What is clear is that McCarthy has the support of Paladino, making McCarthy’s challenger very aware of the financial disadvantage she’s likely to be grappling with. Mistretta says what’s important to her is that many teachers support her – but at some point, she might find herself needing to consider the possibility of seeking BTF backing.
“I guess that’s why I cannot completely rule out seeking the backing of some of these groups, because I cannot compete with Paladino’s money,” Mistretta said. “I can’t completely rule that out, out of necessity.”
Paladino himself will face at least one opponent: Adrian F. Harris, a teacher aide in the Lancaster School District who lives about a block away from Paladino. As the father of a student at South Park High School, Harris says he will offer voters a clear choice, having experienced firsthand the challenges faced by the Buffalo Public Schools.
“I’m an educator; [Paladino] is a businessman. There’s a distinct difference between the two of us,” said Harris, who is working solo to collect signatures door-to-door in South Buffalo to get on the ballot. “I’m a consensus-builder. I can get my point across in a way that’s not going to offend anybody.”
In the Ferry District, a former board member is seeking to rejoin the board. Stephon Wright, the first student member appointed to the board – in a nonvoting capacity – plans to run, this time to be a voting member of the board.
“They need my voice back on that School Board,” said Wright, who graduated from Emerson High School last year. “They need the youth.”