Change is coming to the Buffalo School Board.
Some of it is certain.
Come July, two of the incumbents no longer will sit on the board. One decided not to seek re-election; the other was knocked off the ballot.
A third incumbent is fighting in court just to get back on the ballot – and then he would face an uphill battle to retain his seat against a well-organized and well-financed opponent.
And two other incumbents – one of them the board president – are trying to fend off challenges by viable candidates, some of whom have powerful allies backing their efforts.
Typically, district elections such as this one draw only about one out of every 20 registered voters to the polls. But in this city where as few as two dozen votes can decide a School Board election, some preliminary indications suggest that interest in this year’s races for six School Board seats could be higher than usual.
“I’ve never experienced a city talking more about a board election race,” said Brian Trzeciak, lead organizer for the advocacy group Citizen Action of New York.
At least seven candidate forums have been held or scheduled – a remarkable number, compared with past years.
“At no time in my adult life have I seen the level of interest – and even more than interest – the level of community awareness of what is going on in the Buffalo Public Schools than I do now,” said Samuel Radford III, president of the District Parent Coordinating Council, who has watched school board elections for roughly two decades.
The teachers unions – on the state and local levels – are doing their part, as always, to influence voter turnout.
The state teachers union says it will send 300 volunteers door to door regularly until the May 7 election to rally support for the slate it backs – which consists of all the incumbents who are running, plus one other candidate.
Phone calls in support of the union-backed candidates have already begun in earnest across the city.
And flashy, expensive, full-color ads are appearing in mailboxes across the city, providing testament to the “Paladino factor,” the role that developer and gubernatorial nominee Carl Paladino is having on an otherwise routinely ignored election.
All that plays a role.
But beyond these traditional get-out-the-vote strategies, observers say there is a growing public recognition that the key to the future of Buffalo and to every family’s ability to send their child to college – thanks to the Say Yes initiative – rests with better schools and better school leadership.
What’s wrong with Buffalo schools isn’t any different this year than in years past, Radford said.
“What has changed is that the public is more aware,” he said.
Awareness is hard to foster when the ability for voters to size up candidates is limited.
Six seats on the nine-member board are up for grabs this year, meaning that the election will determine the majority of the board for the coming year, and with it, the direction the district will take.
Unlike most other elected offices, where voters have months to learn about candidates, collect information and form decisions, School Board candidates have only three weeks – sometimes less – to connect with voters before Election Day. This year, that’s May 7.
A lot happens in that short amount of time, and this year is no exception.
Only one of the incumbents is guaranteed another three years on the board: Sharon Belton-Cottman, who was appointed about two years ago to fill a vacancy in the Ferry District. Though it originally looked like she might have two challengers, none ultimately surfaced.
Ferry voters won’t be the only ones without a choice on the ballot this year, though.
In the East District, incumbent Rosalyn L. Taylor was forced off the ballot about a week ago for having too few valid signatures on her nominating petitions.
That means Theresa Harris-Tigg, an assistant professor of English at SUNY Buffalo State, will be the unchallenged representative of East District residents.
In the Park District – which covers South Buffalo – two challengers are running for the seat because incumbent Louis J. Petrucci announced this past winter that he would not run for another term.
That leaves Adrian F. Harris, a teacher’s aide in the Lancaster schools, to run an underdog’s campaign against developer Carl P. Paladino, whose name recognition is nearly unrivaled in Western New York.
Perhaps nowhere in Buffalo is the strength of one candidate as obvious as in South Buffalo, where orange and black Paladino signs – “Help us take our schools back” – are ubiquitous, while Harris’ white and blue signs are something of a rarity.
Harris said he knows he’s got a tough race.
“I’m still meeting people,” he said. “I’m still out in the community. I’ll be there until the day of the election. I know it’s an uphill battle, but I think with me, people know what they’re going to get.”
On the West Side, two candidates are battling in a district where voter turnout tends to be consistently low, compared with other parts of the city.
Ralph R. Hernandez has represented the area for nine years – winning by 240 or fewer votes each time. The last time he was re-elected, three years ago, Hernandez beat a little-known challenger, Philip Lomax, by just 28 votes.
This year, Hernandez is running against a more formidable opponent, one with considerable support from the business community as well as various political powers: James P. Sampson, president of Gateway-Longview child services agency and chairman of the Erie County control board.
What’s more, it’s not clear yet whether Hernandez will even be on the ballot.
Though he collected more than 1,000 signatures, only 430 were deemed valid by the Board of Elections. He will be in court Tuesday in the hopes of regaining his place on the ballot.
Even if he loses in court, though, Hernandez says he will launch a vigorous write-in campaign against an organized and well-financed opponent in what may be his toughest race ever, despite his name recognition and loyalty from many in the Hispanic and immigrant community.
Major district face-offs
The two districts with races that are likely to be the closest are the North District – with a three-way race – and the Central District, where the board president is challenged by someone who once lost that seat by only 34 votes.
Both districts historically have had higher voter turnout than others.
The North District candidates all have their own bases of support: incumbent Jason McCarthy, who has the backing of business leaders and Democratic Party officials; retired school administrator Susan Gillick, who has the support of the teachers unions and affiliated advocacy groups, as well as the Working Families Party; and former college administrator and parent activist Wendy Mistretta, who has the informal support of many leaders in the District Parent Coordinating Council.
Similarly, a two-way race in the Central District is likely to be crucial to the composition of the board.
Retired firefighter Bryon McIntyre, a vice president in the District Parent Coordinating Council, is challenging Board President Mary Ruth Kapsiak, a retired teacher and school administrator who has the support of the teachers union.
McIntyre ran unsuccessfully for a School Board seat in three previous elections – but he sometimes lost by slim margins. He was 34 votes shy of winning a seat in 2004 and finished fifth out of a field of eight for one of three at-large seats five years later.
In the last election, in 2010, McIntyre lost to Kapsiak by 211 votes, out of about 1,100 cast.
One sign of public engagement seems to be the growing willingness to take sides in the debate over what might improve city schools.
Candidates are being increasingly marked by whether they support the unions or “reform,” charter schools or neighborhood schools, or both.
“At this point, there are three different teams: the Paladino group, reform groups and organizations like ours that often get lumped in with the unions,” said Trzeciak of Citizen Action.
Radford credited the media, and The Buffalo News in particular, for making more education information available in recent years than at any point in the past.
And he credited Say Yes to Education for attracting the interest of people who never had as much reason to be invested in city School Board elections as they do now.
“I think that has people’s attention,” he said.