When a school district is in the kind of trouble that Buffalo’s is, it needs to be relentless about taking all possible steps to improve its performance. Obviously, that includes issues such as instruction, attendance and behavior. Perhaps less obviously, it also means the School Board must obey the law on campaign finance. In Buffalo, that law goes largely ignored.
A review by The Buffalo News of the last two election cycles shows that compliance with the law has been rare.
Here is why this is important: School Board members set policies for the district. Sometimes, they micromanage the district, which is unwise, but which also makes these elections even more influential. For voters to form an accurate picture of the candidates, they need to know who is funding them and to whom they might be indebted.
An obvious example of that is the Buffalo Teachers Federation, which actively supports certain candidates but which, like just about everybody else contributing to School Board campaigns, is less than forthcoming about what it spends. The same is true of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, which donated vastly more than the law allows.
Candidates, too, need to file disclosure forms, but few do. When Christopher L. Jacobs ran for re-election four years ago, he raised $52,000 but did not disclose the identity of any contributors. That violated state law.
Compounding the problem is the format in which reports are filed – when they are. Campaign finance reports are submitted the old-fashioned way: on paper. That makes it difficult to figure out exactly how much is being given by what donors to which candidates. These reports need to be filed electronically in order to give the public an easy way to see which individuals or interest groups are trying to influence the decisions of the School Board.
Voters are being cheated. Some of this may be out of ignorance of the law, but some, no doubt, is willful. Part of the problem is the informational fog caused by paper filings. It all needs to change.
It begins with updating the official – and incomplete – instructions on filing financial disclosures. The Board of Education and the Erie County Board of Elections both instruct candidates that they need to itemize their campaign spending, but say nothing about itemizing their donations. It’s a significant lapse. Since speaking with a News reporter about the issue, Election Commissioner Dennis Ward said the form has been updated.
But it also calls for education and compliance by both candidates and donors. The Buffalo Niagara Partnership, for example, spent more than $26,000 supporting three candidates in 2009. But the law allows donations of no more than $25 per candidate unless the money goes directly to the candidate. A Partnership spokesman said the organization was unaware of that distinction and in the future may give directly to candidates. Those donations can be unlimited, which is a different problem, though at this point, legal.
It is also critical for there to be official monitoring of candidates and donors to ensure, as best as possible, that reports are filed in a timely matter, allowing voters to make better-informed choices at the ballot box.
Finally, a penalty needs to be imposed on candidates who don’t file in a timely manner. Given that candidates can be thrown off the ballot for filing faulty petitions, we would suggest the same price for candidates who try to cheat voters of information that is fundamental to democratic elections.