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Contest tutors teacher on partisanship

Gail Hall thought she had found a way to make conservation science fun.

When she came across an open call asking for "local student entries" for a State Senate-sponsored contest -- the I*ma*Green*Nation Celebration -- in a February issue of The Buffalo News, she pitched the idea to her fourth-graders at Winchester Elementary in West Seneca. The pupils jumped at the chance to make creative projects about environmentalism.

"Kids did songs, poems, posters," Hall said, adding that they focused on their school's solar panels and recycling. "My students put their hearts and souls into their project."

She said the pupils incorporated their projects into classroom lessons and even presented them at community events.

However, she said, when the time came to submit the entries to the contest, she began to feel the presence of an unseen barrier.

The original call for entries, which was distributed by State Sen. George D. Maziarz, R-Newfane, instructed potential participants to contact their local senator for more information.

When she called the office of her district's senator, William T. Stachowski, D-Buffalo, a secretary suggested that she could not win.

"She reminded me that we are a minority district, that the Republicans are in power . . . and this was initiated by the Republican Party," Hall said.

Hall, however, didn't understand why she was discouraged from entering.

"They didn't come out and say [we couldn't enter], but she explained to me what 'minority' meant," she said.

Hall said the secretary submitted her materials to the contest anyway. Months passed without any word of winning or losing.

At the time, she did not know that the 16th annual contest -- which allowed hundreds of pupils in grades one through eight to travel to Albany in May to receive medals and meet their senators -- is funded by the Senate majority and that Republican districts control the event.

Individual senators are responsible for distributing information about the contest and for choosing the winners, although in the notice posted by Maziarz in The News, there was no specification that entrants were required to belong to his district.

"We don't take part in it . . . We wouldn't even have the means to enter," said Dennis Kozuch, Stachowski's chief of staff.

"I don't want to do it again if there is no chance of winning," Hall said.

Mark Hansen, a spokesman for the Senate majority, said he was "unsure" of whether the only districts that participated were Republican.

"This is a Senate majority-sponsored event," he added. "There's no reason that other senators can't have their own events."

Adam Tabelski, communications director of Maziarz's office, which issued the local notification, said he was "not aware" of the possible partisan divide in the competition.

"We only have oversight over Maziarz's office. Whether there are potential applicants from outside our senator's district, I don't really know," he said.


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