With the election over, it’s time for the investigators to get to work. The Buffalo School Board election was rife with violations – legal and olfactory – that demand an accounting.
It’s not just the odoriferous nature of the expensive flyers that targeted candidates opposed by the state and local teachers unions, though they were obscene in their attacks on both Carl Paladino and those they sought to associate with him. Alone, those vile flyers need to be tracked to their origin – New York State United Teachers has stopped denying involvement – so the perpetrators can explain themselves.
More troubling, though, is the impunity with which donors and candidates alike flout laws on financial disclosure. They have been emboldened, no doubt, by years in which election and law enforcement officials simply disregarded violations. With no price to pay, why bother complying?
Here are some reasons:
• It’s the law. Elected officials and those who seek elected office need to set an example of compliance.
• School Board elections are important. They may seem, from some perspectives, to be stepchildren in the hierarchy of democratic life, but they help to determine, in no small way, the quality of education a community’s children can receive. Nowhere is that more urgent than in Buffalo, where – as in other big city districts – student achievement and graduation rates are shamefully low.
• Residents have the legal right to know who is supporting candidates vying for their votes. That is critical information. It makes a difference if a would-be member of the local School Board is being influenced by school reform groups, or parents organizations, or teachers unions or anyone else.
Yet, despite that need, the law is routinely violated and rarely, if ever, enforced. What is more, the law, itself, is a relic of the 19th century, requiring paper filings that make piecing together the puzzle of campaign donations far more difficult than it should be.
Here is some of what The News recently uncovered in analyzing donations to Buffalo School Board candidates over the past two election cycles:
• Christopher L. Jacobs, now Erie County clerk, raised $52,000 for his campaign four years ago and did not disclose the identity of a single contributor, as state law requires.
• The same year, the Buffalo Niagara Partnership spent more than $26,000 on behalf of Jacobs and two other board members – even though the law limited spending to no more than $25 per candidate.
• The following year, a downstate education reform group spent $50,000 to promote a few candidates, by its own account. Education Reform Now disregarded the $25 limit, and there is no indication it ever reported its expenditures.
• The Buffalo Teachers Federation spent more than $13,000 in 2009 and 2010 to support its favored candidates, but the actual figures seem likely to have been much higher, based on ambiguities in some of the reporting and omissions in candidates’ reporting.
These are disturbing practices that document an important law that is neither obeyed nor enforced. This needs to be the year that changes, if for no other reason than to ensure that candidates and donors in next year’s elections, when voters will decide who fills three at-large seats, know they will be expected to toe the line.