NIAGARA FALLS – A pamphlet distributed by the Niagara Falls School District to inform voters about next week’s budget vote and School Bboard election excludes the names of challengers running for the board.
The section in the brochure about next Tuesday’s School Board race includes only the names of incumbents Arthur L. Jocoy Jr. and Nicholas S.J. Vilardo, while the names of the four other candidates were left off.
Challenger Steven P. DiNieri is among several people who criticized the school administration’s actions. He alleged the move was intentional.
“I believe they are concerned and make a concerted effort to prevent, or make more difficult, the election of individuals that they deem to be troublemakers,” DiNieri said in an email.
In describing the election, the plainly worded pamphlet notes that voters will pick candidates for two five-year seats. “Those seats are currently held by Art Jocoy Jr. and Nick Vilardo,” reads one sentence of the four-sentence paragraph. It’s small, but could be seen as a way the district could subtly assist to get incumbents’ names out to the public.
The bulk of the information in the brochure relates to the proposed 2014-15 budget. It is being distributed at each of the district’s 11 schools, the district’s central offices, to parent groups in each of the district’s schools and was handed out at the sparsely attended public hearing on the proposed spending plan.
The Buffalo News emailed a copy of the pamphlet to the four challengers and asked for their opinions.
In addition to the incumbents, DiNieri, Ken Hamilton, Angela J. Bray and Thomas R. Vitello Sr. are also running for the board.
District officials said it’s been their practice for years to include such information about the board vote in the pamphlet. Aside from their names, no other information about the incumbents is printed.
Superintendent Cynthia A. Bianco denied there was any intent by the district to promote the incumbents and said the information was only provided to explain whose terms on the board are expiring. “We’ve done that forever,” Bianco said.
The pamphlet was printed in mid-April, before the April 30 deadline to file petitions to run for the board, said district spokeswoman Judie Glaser.
The district does provide information about candidates in its monthly “Our Schools” newsletter to residents, about 25,000 copies of which are distributed each month, officials said. After the pamphlet was printed, candidates were contacted by the district to provide information about themselves for the newsletter, Glaser said.
School Board member Johnny G. Destino, who is not up for re-election next week, called the practice unfair to the non-incumbents.
Destino also described as “misleading” another section of the district’s pamphlet titled “Impact of a Defeated Budget.”
That section describes what types of cuts could be made if a contingency budget were put in place by the School Board, a step taken if voters turn down the proposed spending plan.
After listing that “music, art, physical education, sports and health services” may see cuts, the pamphlet also says “support services and educational programs may also have to be cut.”
But before those cuts could happen, the board has the power to hold a second budget vote before a contingency budget goes into effect. That’s not mentioned in the pamphlet.
Without the missing context, it implies such steps would take place if the budget is voted down next week.
“That seems to try to promote fear in the public that if you don’t pass it on the first time, that you have no other recourse but to cut programs,” Destino said.
In fact, the district administration has already outlined in previous public sessions that under a contingency budget, about $317,500 in spending would have to be cut, including $150,000 for a summer camp, $100,000 for non-emergency capital improvements, $20,000 for student supplies, $16,000 for team uniforms and $31,500 for equipment. A contingency budget would also prohibit the district from providing transportation to regular students who live within 1.5 miles of their school, as well as limit the use of school facilities by outside groups.
Bianco, the superintendent, said it would be the School Board’s decision on whether to hold a second budget vote if the first one fails. Holding another vote would cost the district approximately $32,000 or $33,000, she said.
“We wouldn’t want to go with a contingency,” she said.