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Kapsiak wins School Board presidency 5-4 votes sweep new majority into power in city, capturing three leadership positions

Four newly elected members and a maverick holdover swept to power Monday on the Buffalo Board of Education, capturing all three leadership positions and forming a new majority that vowed to adopt a more critical attitude toward Superintendent James A. Williams.

"With respect to the superintendent, we're going to operate more as a board where he works for us rather than us working for him," said Catherine Nugent Panepinto, part of the new board majority. "We want to have a fresh start -- new voices from the community."

With stunning quickness, the board leadership took on an entirely new look.

Mary Ruth Kapsiak, just moments after being sworn in as a board member, was elected president in a 5-4 vote over Florence D. Johnson, the incumbent.

In identical 5-4 votes, Panepinto, another new member, was elected vice president of student achievement, and Ralph Hernandez, the maverick holdover, became vice president for executive affairs. Panepinto defeated Vivian Evans, a holdover member, and Hernandez edged Catherine Collins, another board veteran.

"Evidently people wanted change," Collins said. "And change they got."

In all three votes, the majority consisted of Hernandez, Kapsiak, Panepinto and two other new members attending their first meeting -- Pamela D. Perry-Cahill and Lou Petrucci.

While vowing to work cooperatively with Williams and the other four board representatives, several members of the new majority said the previous board granted too much power to Williams.

"This certainly signifies that the board will have a more active role in steering the ship," said Hernandez, who provided the swing vote.

Kapsiak, Buffalo's supervisor of elementary education before retiring in 2006, has the ability not only to work with Williams, but to "stand up to him when she disagrees," Petrucci said. "That was lacking before."

Williams, who did not attend the meeting because he was home with a virus, said in a telephone interview that Monday's vote doesn't alter his relationship with the board.

"I don't see any shift in power because the board is always in control," he said. "I've always worked for the board. They're the ones who vote."

Williams said the change in board leadership could be a positive development.

"Sometimes change is good," he said. "We will work things out. I'll get with them as soon as I get back on my feet. You sit around the table and you see the bigger picture."

With the exception of Panepinto, all the members of the new majority were elected May 1 with the backing of the Buffalo Teachers Federation.

"We think it's great that there's new leadership," BTF President Philip Rumore said of Monday's votes. "We look forward to working with these members, along with the holdover members."

Kapsiak, who was also a teacher and assistant principal in Buffalo, said Monday's 5-4 votes do not signal a split board.

"I know I can work with the board, and I know I can work with Dr. Williams," she said. "I expect us to vote together. I expect the board to be unified."

Johnson, board president the past three years, said she is hopeful the new board will continue to focus on a reform effort designed to raise student achievement.

"I just see new people coming on, new ideas," she said. "And that's all right."

The four new board members met several times since the May 1 election and ultimately decided to back Kapsiak as president because of her experience as a Buffalo teacher and administrator, they said. That became possible within the past few days when Hernandez, who had been seeking the presidency himself, agreed instead to support her.

The coalition centered on the four new members held together during weeks of politicking because of a common sense of purpose, Perry-Cahill said.

"I think we believed in each other," she said. "New energy, new vision, new leadership is what's needed. That's what my constituents asked me for."

e-mail: psimon@buffnews.com

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