Regardless of the outcome of Tuesday’s hotly contested election for three at-large seats on the Buffalo Board of Education, Stephon M. Wright believes he already has made a difference.
That was evident on the campaign trail when one high school student thanked him for being a positive role model.
“He said, ‘I’ve never seen anyone our age doing this. You see people our age out selling drugs and trying to keep up with women,’ ” recalled Wright, who at age 20 is the youngest candidate in the race.
Wright’s political experience so far has been limited to a stint as the first student representative on the School Board. But that was an opportunity that came with great pride, largely because the appointment came after a hard-fought battle to create the position.
That was in 2012, about six months after Wright threw his hat in the ring for a vacant seat on the board. Although the board did not appoint Wright to that spot, his interest and youthful energy captured a set of high-profile admirers – including the leaders of the Buffalo Teachers Federation and the District Parent Coordinating Council – who assisted his push to add a nonvoting student member to the board. They offered him help with public speaking, news releases and how to conduct a news conference.
Week after week, Wright attended board meetings, often in a three-piece suit, with a growing number of students to support his quest.
Eventually, the board gave him the spot.
During that time, Wright had a front-row seat for the governance of the school district. At the end of his term, he astutely summed up the dysfunction he had witnessed.
“Everybody isn’t working together,” he said plainly. “I think that it’s real dysfunctional – not just the district, but the board, the teachers, the parents.”
Since then, Wright graduated from the Emerson School of Hospitality and went on to enroll at Erie Community College. He also works at the Boys & Girls Club of Buffalo.
There is little difference, however, in the school system he left behind.
“Between 2012 and 2014, a lot hasn’t changed,” he said. “That’s why I want to go back to the table.”
Wright draws his views largely from his experience growing up on the city’s East Side, facing many of the same challenges as students currently in the district.
Although he has indicated he would vote to retain Superintendent Pamela C. Brown, he also believes that when it comes time to find her successor, it should be someone with ties to the area.
Wright does reveal his inexperience when speaking about certain issues affecting the district. For example, he was not familiar with the controversial rehiring of interim Deputy Superintendent Mary E. Guinn.
Still, Wright feels he can draw on his own recent experience as a student to focus the efforts of the board on matters that will have the most impact in the classroom.
“I struggled; I’m just like everyone else,” he said. “I’m not coming in here acting like I have all the answers. But I want to be the face to show (students) they can make it. I did.”
Wright has some support from notable people on the city’s political scene. His campaign manager, Desmond J. Brown, is the son of former Deputy Mayor Donna M. Brown. He considers School Board member Sharon M. Belton-Cottman a mentor and said she has helped mold him as a candidate.
He has not received any significant endorsements or campaign contributions.
If elected to a five-year term on the board, Wright says, he would push to create more career-focused programs such as the one offered at Emerson. Such programs teach students academics as well as job skills, he says, and he believes that can improve both attendance and academics.
Wright also has a focus on fostering a culture of respect where both families and teachers are treated as partners in the district. He would work to improve communication among board members, as well as transparency between the board and the community.