Turnout was strong at some sites and anemic at others as voters today went to the polls to determine who will fill three of the nine seats on the Buffalo Board of Education.
At the Unitarian Universalist Church of Buffalo on Elmwood Avenue, poll workers said almost 700 had voted by 5 p.m. With four hours to go, that compared with the 382 who voted there all day long in the last at-large School Board race five years ago.
Perhaps drawn by the heavy turnout, candidates Wendy S. Mistretta, Sergio Rodriguez and Bernard A. Tolbert were at the church greeting voters during the post-work rush hour.
At the University United Methodist Church, 410 Minnesota at Bailey Avenue, a poll worker said that about 70 people had voted by noon, compared with a total of 169 five years ago.
On the other hand, the Matt Urban Center at 1081 Broadway – which drew 121 voters in 2009 – had tallied only 20 votes as of 5:30 p.m., and only 26 voters had shown up at the Broadway Market.
Some voters got an early start. By 8 a.m., 58 people had signed in to cast their ballots at North Park Academy in North Buffalo, including Jeremy Laubacker who voted before heading to work.
“I’m voting for candidates who represent change, because what they’re doing isn’t working,” Laubacker said.
Today’s voting follows a contentious and high-profile campaign that garnered interest from a broad swath of the community.
There is much at stake in today’s election, with the results having a significant impact on the direction of the school district and, by extension, the city.
Many deem the election a referendum on whether Superintendent Pamela C. Brown keeps her job. The three at-large members chosen today also will oversee a more than $900 million budget and set policy that will drive what happens in the city’s classrooms.
Marie Schillo, 93, walked to University United after not voting in recent School Board elections. Dissatisfaction with Brown drew her to the polls this year, where she said she voted for Lawrence Quinn, Patricia Bowers Pierce and John B. Licata – all three of whom have said they would vote to terminate Brown’s contract.
“I think we desperately need to have new leadership on the School Board, especially the superintendent” Schillo said. “I guess mostly I’m concerned about Pamela Brown. We’re not accomplishing what the state is demanding of us.”
A handful of people voted early today at the Frank E. Merriweather Jr. Branch Library at 1324 Jefferson Avenue on the East Side.
Stella Coleman was on her way to work as she stopped into the library to vote. Colemon said she would like the makeup of the School Board to be representative of the children in the district.
She also supports Brown.
“I like her,” Coleman said. “I believe she’s fighting for us and our kids.”
At Stanley M. Makowski Early Childhood Center, 17 voters showed up before 9 a.m., among them Sunday Freeman of Reilly Street.
Freeman also supports Brown, who last year said that she never entertained accepting a half-million-dollar buyout offer from a group of business leaders who were trying to entice her to resign.
“She gave up $500,000 to continue her pursuit of our children’s well being,” Freeman said. “So I think that has to be considered. I mean, who does that in today’s economic situation?”
In North Buffalo, Jim Hornung Jr. also voted before going to work. He had a clear idea of what he hopes the incoming school board will do. “Right now, the superintendent is pretty much exclusively the issue,” Hornung said. “The district is in shambles right now, with the fighting and the lawsuits. We own a family business in the city and it’s hard to get qualified people to work here, and I think that the schools are a big factor. “The biggest thing for me is, the way it’s being done now is embarrassing,” Hornung said. “They don’t seem to get anything right. Enough is enough.”
The election is the culmination of a year of turmoil and tension in Buffalo schools, much of it centered on Brown and her leadership.
Critics say Brown, who was hired in mid-2012, has failed to effectively lead the district and has alienated key partners, including the District Parent Coordinating Council, which has filed numerous complaints with the state Education Department and accused the district of being out of compliance with state laws and policies. Several critical plans for turning around troubled schools in the city have been rejected by the state.
One School Board member has sought the board president’s removal, exacerbating a divide on the board that often breaks along racial and gender lines that many believe will also decide the election.
Meanwhile, those supporting Brown – who narrowly kept her job in a 5-4 vote by the board in September – point to modest gains in test scores and graduation rates and improvements in attendance. They say she deserves more time.
Schillo, who supported three anti-Brown candidates, said race was not a factor.
“We just need competent people,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if they’re black or white.”
But another voter called race an undeniable factor, saying she voted for a diverse slate of candidates for that reason.
“I’m really concerned about our city being a diverse city,” said Karen Williams Powell, 65, who was voting at Unitarian Universalist Church. “The most important thing to me is to hear if people are being inclusive.”
The race drew a broad field of 13 candidates who represent the diversity – and division – that marks the community.
The top three vote-getters in the at-large race will serve five-year terms.
Here are some things to know before casting your ballot:
• When do polls open?
Polls are open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.
• How can I find my polling place?
Voters can identify their polling site on the Erie County Board of Elections website www.elections.erie.gov. Or they can call the Board of Elections at 858-8891. The office opens at 5:30 a.m.
• Who can vote?
All residents of the City of Buffalo who are at least 18 years old and registered to vote can cast a ballot, since the race is at-large and not by district.
• Who is running?
There are 13 candidates on the ballot for three at-large seats. They are: Stephen M. Buccilli, Samuel P. Davis, Adrian F. Harris, Ralph R. Hernandez, Licata (incumbent), Mistretta, Barbara A. Seals Nevergold (incumbent), Pierce, Quinn, Rodriguez, Gizelle E. Stokes, Tolbert and Stephon M. Wright.
• How are the candidates identified on the ballot?
Candidates appear on the ballot only by name and are listed in a randomly selected order. Since the race is nonpartisan, their political parties are not included. Nor is their status as an incumbent.
• How many people can I vote for?
Each voter can select up to three candidates. Voters can choose fewer than three, but if they select more than three the machine will reject the ballot and ask the voter to fill out a new one.
• How do I file an absentee ballot?
The Board of Elections stopped distributing absentee ballots Monday.
• How do I vote for a write-in candidate?
There is a spot on the ballot for voters to write in the name of someone not listed.
• What happens if I make a mistake on my ballot?
If you make a mistake, or want to change your vote, you can request a new ballot from the poll worker.
• When do I find out the results?
The Board of Elections will post results on its website as they come after the polls close at 9 p.m. The Buffalo News will also post the results along with updates from the polls and reaction from the candidates at www.buffalonews.com.
• When will the new board members take office?
Those elected will be sworn in during the board’s annual reorganization meeting July 1. The board will also elect its officers during that meeting.
• Where can I go to learn more about each candidate?
The Buffalo News has compiled a comprehensive voter guide that includes profiles, positions on key issues and video interviews filmed as part of a collaboration with WBFO-FM and WNED-TV. Find the voter guide at www.buffalonews.com/BPS.