There’s a big sign that suggests a lot is riding on Buffalo School Board elections Tuesday.
It hangs from the second floor of the Acropolis Restaurant on Elmwood Avenue and reads: IT’S TIME TO CHANGE OUR SCHOOLS! VOTE MAY 7th.
“I want to be in your face,” restaurant owner Paul Tsouflidis explained, “and I want you to walk by it all the time and remember that on Tuesday, you have to vote.”
Although turnout in school board elections is traditionally low – around 5 percent – Tsouflidis and others say they are hopeful that more people recognize what’s at stake this time around and will turn out.
There are some other less literal signs that things are different this year.
A record number of candidate forums have sprouted like flowers in the desert. A former gubernatorial nominee has been a lightning rod, sparking attention as a candidate, a playmaker and a whipping boy. Teacher unions are pouring large sums of money into the races with some of the nastiest personal-attack literature anyone can remember seeing in a school board election. And there are at least two write-in campaigns.
Will any of that make a difference Tuesday?
At stake is leadership of the Buffalo Public Schools, a district that spends more than $900 million taxpayer dollars a year, is responsible for educating 30,000 children and has one of the lowest graduation rates in the state.
Tsouflidis is optimistic that more voters will turn out. He spent $320 on the banner at his restaurant to encourage Elmwood patrons and young people in general to cast their ballots for the six seats up for grabs on the Board of Education.
“I think, for the first time, and this is just me, there’s never been more interest in a school board election,” he said. “There are so many organizations helping schools get better, and people coming through the woodwork to help.”
Others are far less sure.
“People don’t really take the School Board election seriously,” said Elois Liggans, a vice president with the Parent-Teacher Organization at BUILD Academy. “They don’t understand how crucial that is.”
History gives many people reason to be skeptical. And part of the reason may be a reflection of the School Board election calendar.
The election is held in the first week of May, not in November when most public elections are held. In addition, School Board candidates aren’t named until mid-April. So city voters have a scant two to three weeks to figure out who the candidates are, where the candidates stand on the issues, and what merits their vote.
“The issues are complex, and no one is sitting down and breaking down these issues for the average person to understand,” said Larry B. Williams, president of the Glenwood-Fillmore-Kehr Block Club.
The Buffalo News sent questionnaires to the School Board candidates, and a summary of their positions is contained in the graphic accompanying this story.
The Buffalo School Board does not have a say over state mandates such as standardized tests and teacher evaluations, but does has direct influence over several other issues, including:
• Whether the district will continue with its existing school choice model for elementary students, or whether it will reinstate neighborhood schools.
• Whether teachers will be required to live in the city. For years, the district had a residency requirement, but the board rescinded it about two years ago.
• Whether school buildings are kept open into the evenings as community hubs.
• Who the superintendent is. The board’s primary job is to hire the superintendent.
And there are other issues that the board has the ability to influence.
For instance, the School Board does not control how much money the state or the city gives to the district, but the board frequently lobbies the Common Council to earmark more of the money it collects in taxes for the schools.
The School Board also has some influence regarding the number of local charter schools. The board has the authority to convert district schools into charter schools. And when a group wants to start a new charter school, the board holds a public hearing and offers a recommendation to the state.
Other policies in education – such as standardized testing and teacher evaluations – are determined at the state or federal level, meaning that local districts are responsible for implementing them. But a local school board cannot change the fundamental requirements.
Comprehensive information about the school board races and individual candidate profiles and district maps can be found on The Buffalo News website’s School Zone blog, at http://blogs.buffalonews.com/school_zone.
In 2010, the last time six of the nine seats were up for election, fewer than 7,200 city voters cast a ballot out of 145,000 registered voters. Because of the historically low turnout, the vote tally that separates winners and losers in a school board race often measures in the dozens.
Calls to various school, community and organizational activists around the city last week suggested that this year’s election may be met in many quarters with the same sense of defeatism or lack of interest that have marked past elections.
“It’s been pretty quiet,” said Ben Johnson, executive director of the Parkside Community Organization. “There’s been very little chatter about this at all.”
Nevertheless, there are a few signs that people are paying more attention this time around.
“There’s a little bit more attention because of Carl,” said Tom McDonnell, referring to Carl Paladino, the developer who is a candidate in the Park District. “But I think the primary direction of people’s attention is going toward the issues and the need for change. I think they’re more aware of the issues than they were before.”
McDonnell’s bookstore – Dog Ears Bookstore – held separate Park District candidate forums for Paladino and his opponent, Adrian Harris. The first two drew 20 to 30 people each. A third bookstore gathering for Paladino drew about 50 people, he said.
His candidate meet-and-greet was one of a surprising proliferation of candidate forums held in the city this year.
Susie Lenahan, a broker with M.J. Peterson Real Estate’s city office, said she’s encountered many people expressing interest in this year’s “wild” elections for the very first time.
“People who have sort of gone, ‘Oh, ho hum, I don’t care’ are like, ‘Wow, this is really important,’ ” she said. “It should be very important, and it’s just appalling – the low turnout. You can’t complain and moan, and then sit back and do nothing. You’ve got to get out and vote.”
Tsouflidis said that because of his sign, which he put up Thursday night, he’s had people come into his restaurant asking where their polling places are. He printed up little cards to let them know where to find that information on the Erie County Board of Elections website.
“At least I’m trying, on Elmwood,” he said. “If I can just get people to remember on May 7 to vote, and they actually vote, I mean, that’s big.”
Polls will be open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday. To find your polling place, visit https://www.elections.erie.gov/voterlookup.aspx.
News Staff Reporter Mary Pasciak contributed to this report. email: firstname.lastname@example.org