Someone spent a lot of money in the last couple of weeks trying to elect union-backed candidates to the Buffalo School Board.
It didn’t work very well.
High-priced smear ads targeted four of the six election districts in the city – those with more than one person on the ballot.
In only one of those four did voters elect the candidate supported by the teachers union: retired teacher and administrator Mary Ruth Kapsiak in the Central District.
In fact, the Buffalo Teachers Federation will lose three solid supporters on the nine-member board once the new members are seated at the beginning of July.
For the time being, four of the six district seats on the nine-member board are filled by people who have received solid union support this year or in past elections: Kapsiak; Ralph R. Hernandez, an administrator for a health care network; Louis J. Petrucci, chief building inspector for the city; and Rosalyn L. Taylor, a retired administrator in the district.
Of the six people who won seats Tuesday, four were actively opposed by the union: Carl P. Paladino, one of Buffalo’s wealthiest developers; Theresa A. Harris-Tigg, an assistant professor at SUNY Buffalo State; James M. Sampson, president and CEO of Gateway-Longview child services agency; and Jason M. McCarthy, a manager at Hutch’s restaurant, who won re-election.
A fifth – mortgage consultant Sharon Belton-Cottman, the incumbent in the Ferry District – had only tepid backing from the statewide teachers union. And that seemed to come only because the union was unable to recruit someone to run against the often-outspoken critic of the BTF, according to sources familiar with the dynamics of the race.
When the new board members are seated, only one of the six district seats – Central, retained by Kapsiak – will be held by someone solidly backed by the union.
Among the three at-large board members, whose seats will be up in the election next May, attorney John B. Licata received BTF support when he ran four years ago; SUNY Buffalo State administrator Florence D. Johnson did not report getting help from the union in the most recent election; and Barbara Seals Nevergold was appointed to her seat and has not yet run in an election, so it’s not clear whether the union would back her.
Whoever sent the pricey smear ads using a postal permit in Queens was not the only entity spending significant sums on the election.
Support from the outside
The leader of StudentsFirstNY, the state chapter of a national school reform group headed by former Washington, D.C., School Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, said Wednesday that his group gave $10,000 to Sampson and $2,500 to McCarthy.
Those donations were not reported on the candidates’ most recent campaign finance disclosures, which were due last Thursday. Glen Weiner, the group’s acting executive director, said that he was not sure when StudentsFirstNY donated the money but that “everything will be properly disclosed.”
The group identified Sampson and McCarthy as “like-minded,” he said, based on their positions on several issues. He cited charter schools and issues related to teacher evaluations as two of them.
“In terms of teacher quality, we know Buffalo had that side deal attached to their teacher-evaluation system,” Weiner said. “If we had a reform-minded board with Jim Sampson along with Jay McCarthy, I think you wouldn’t have seen that kind of undermining of an effective system.”
StudentsFirstNY also provided Sampson and McCarthy with strategic support, including how to analyze voter data to most effectively target their efforts, he said.
“We provided direct financial support, but, more importantly, we assisted with organizing efforts, field organizing efforts, based on Obama campaign-organizing tactics,” Weiner said. “That expertise and that approach were extremely helpful in driving what were relatively close races.”
Neither Sampson nor McCarthy or any of the other newly elected board members, for that matter say they are planning to form a coalition with Paladino. But there are some key issues on which a few of the new board members agree.
For instance, in the last year or two, the only School Board member who consistently spoke in favor of charter schools was McCarthy. Soon, Paladino and Sampson will join him as board members who support charters.
Harris-Tigg, who stopped short of saying she supports an increase in local charters, seems more sympathetic to them than most sitting board members. “There are thousands of children on waiting lists for charter schools in Buffalo,” she said. “If families cannot pay for private schools or wait for district schools to improve, I favor quality school choices for all children and families.”
Write-ins fall short
Write-in campaigns in School Board elections are not unusual, given that it’s fairly common for candidates to get knocked off the ballot after the opposition challenges the signatures on nominating petitions.
This year, two incumbents, both supported by the teachers union – Hernandez and Taylor– got knocked off the ballot and ran as write-in candidates.
Hernandez was better organized than most write-in candidates, with volunteers at many polling places handing voters rubber stamps with his name on them.
That seemed to help – but not enough. Sampson tallied 554 votes, while 466 people submitted write-in ballots. It’s not yet clear exactly how many of those write-in ballots were votes for Hernandez, however.
The Erie County Board of Elections has not yet released a breakdown of the number of write-in ballots for any particular candidate in any of the districts.
Taylor’s write-in campaign was more of a scramble. She jumped back into the East District race with only a few days left before the election.
Like Hernandez, Taylor was aided by expensive mailers that were sent out a few days before the vote – by the unidentified person or group, widely believed to be the teachers union, sending mailers from Queens – urging voters to write her name onto the ballot.
It wasn’t enough. Harris-Tigg got 694 votes, while only 271 people submitted write-in ballots in the East District.
In the Ferry District, a former president of the District Parent Coordinating Council also launched a last-minute write-in campaign.
A few days before the election, the Rev. Kinzer M. Pointer said he knew nothing about the write-in effort, but Tuesday, he was campaigning in front of the polling place on the Canisius College campus.
“I would be remiss if the community said I should run and I stood aside and did nothing,” he said.
Belton-Cottman, the incumbent, won with 973 votes, compared with 411 write-in ballots.
Parent group lacks traction
Pointer was one of three past or present leaders of the District Parent Coordinating Council to run for a board seat this year – and one of three to lose.
The other two – Wendy S. Mistretta and Bryon J. McIntyre – were on the ballot but raised very little money. Mistretta spent just over $1,000 on her race, enough for palm cards and a handful of lawn signs, and McIntyre spent less than half that much.
Mistretta, the group’s parliamentarian and an active parent at International School 45, came in last in a three-way race in the North District, capturing 15 percent of the vote.
The unofficial vote count, according to the Board of Elections, was: McCarthy, 1,697; Susan L. Gillick, the union-backed candidate, 1,330; and Mistretta, 555.
In the Central District, Kapsiak got 1,174 votes, compared with the 700 votes cast for McIntyre, a vice president for the District Parent Coordinating Council.
Voters in South Buffalo, in what is known as the Park District, cast 2,543 ballots for Paladino and 646 for Adrian F. Harris, a teacher’s aide in Lancaster, whom the union rallied behind.