When two seats on the Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda School Board opened in 2011, it was a lackluster race. The candidates ran unopposed.
Now, however, with district residents energized by an emotional 19-month-long restructuring process that culminated in the board’s decision in April to close three schools, a crowded field of six candidates has emerged for Tuesday’s vote on those same seats.
The ballot includes a small business owner, a biology professor, an elementary school teacher, a high school English teacher, a financial professional and a computer programmer.
“We’ve got a lot of good people running, which is a good thing,” said Jason S. Crosby, a computer programmer at the University at Buffalo School of Medicine and district parent who is also a Boy Scout leader. “It’s good to have a hard choice.”
The winners on July 1 will join the board of a school district in the midst of a major transition.
“We worked 19 months to try to reorganize this district to make it better so we could bring back some programs,” said Trustee Jeff Rickan, who is seeking another three-year term. “I just want to see it through. I want to be part of it.”
The other incumbent, Judy Frank, the board’s only woman member, is not seeking re-election.
At stake is how the board implements its decision to close Roosevelt and Hamilton elementary schools and Kenmore Middle School for the 2016-17 school year. The upheaval it causes will be managed not by Superintendent Mark P. Mondanaro, who is retiring this summer after seven years at the helm, but by a successor the board is expected to name Monday.
The new board will also need to improve relations with Kenmore officials that soured after the board decided to close the only schools in the village – Roosevelt and Kenmore Middle.
Voter Pat Christian, a Kenmore resident and Canisius College sociology professor, said her ideal candidates would work to mitigate the closings’ impact on students, which the district has pledged to do.
“I would want somebody who buys into it and who wants to implement it thoughtfully with the children in mind,” she said this week after a meeting of the Kenmore Village Improvement Society civic group. “Their schools are going to be closing. They’re going to be moving to new schools. That’s the reality of the Ken-Ton School District.”
All of the candidates share that concern.
Candidate Jill Y. O’Malley, a biology professor at Erie Community College and director of the clothing donation site Ken-Ton Closet, said she is concerned about the remaining elementary schools nearing capacity and students being forced to switch schools due to redistricting.
“I think if we’re listening to the parents now we will stave off some of the problems down the road,” she said.
The primary motivation for the consolidation project, now known as the Reorganization Transition Project, was to trim costs. The closings may save Ken-Ton $4.9 million in its first year, according to district officials.
“I have a financial background and, financially speaking, it should have been done a few years ago,” said Donette Darrow, an owner of Liberty Tax Services who said she made a futile push to downsize while serving on the board from 2000 to 2003. “I’m glad they did it. I approve of what they did.”
Voters on Tuesday will also decide on a $151.8 million budget. Property taxes on a $100,000 home in the town would rise by $57 to $2,130 under the proposed budget.
“Tonawanda’s not a wealthy community,” said Crosby. “It doesn’t make sense to be running buildings we don’t need.”
The race’s two practicing teachers, who are also parents of district students, said their jobs lend them unique insight into the major education issues of the day including testing and implementation of the Common Core learning standards.
“One of the main reasons I thought I would be a perfect candidate for the board-of-ed was because I have background in the reading programs they have and that they’ve cut,” said Annemarie Gibson, a third-grade teacher in Hamburg. “I see what works and what doesn’t work.”
Joseph Doherty, a Sweet Home High School English teacher, said the voice of a practicing teacher is missing from the five-member board.
“My day-to-day teaching experience keeps me in tune with the ever-evolving needs of students,” he said in response to a candidate questionnaire.
While the candidates all speak highly of each other, some campaign watchers say the race carries an undercurrent of negativity.
“It’s a little discouraging,” said Rickan. “It’s only the school board. I don’t consider this a political office. I don’t consider it something that could turn ugly. But unfortunately it has. I’m trying to run a very positive campaign.”
Rickan said his daughter, a Ken-Ton teacher, has been “ridiculed” at work for decisions the board made during his term. And now, a significant number of his lawn signs are disappearing, he said.
“I don’t want to whine about signs being stolen,” he said. “When one, or two, or three signs are gone, we attribute it to kids picking them up and goofing around. But I’ve had anywhere from 20 to 25 signs taken.”
Other challengers downplayed claims that the race for the unpaid positions had turned political or personal.
“It seems like everybody’s running a clean race,” said O’Malley. “I know that there’s been stories of lawn signs being stolen. We’ve had some stolen but I just figured it’s kids. I’m certain it’s not anybody who’s running for school board. I mean, it’s the school board. It’s not that cutthroat.”
A full slate of candidates and the competition it brings out has been good for the district at a key moment when its stewardship is more important than ever, said Peter Stuhlmiller, president of the Kenmore Teachers Association, which endorsed O’Malley and Gibson.
“Obviously in this climate it’s rare to see people wanting to get involved and now we’ve got six,” he said. “That’s a surprise and I think it’s probably a healthy thing that there’s so many people in the community interested.”