The race for three at-large seats on the Buffalo School Board – and with them, control of the board – has elicited the interest of some of the most powerful groups and individuals in the region: East Side community activists, unions, wealthy businessmen, the head of the local NAACP, and political leaders of every stripe, from the Democratic Party to the tea party.
And from that swell of interest, plenty of intriguing alliances also have emerged.
A Democratic assemblyman, the head of the county’s Conservative Party, the current chairman and the former chairman of the city’s Republican committee and three Republican committee members, for instance, all stepped forward to support the same candidate, Patricia A. Pierce. And all but one of those also support Lawrence Quinn.
Meanwhile, political leaders and community organizations with strong ties to Buffalo’s black community are turning out in large numbers to support their choice of candidates. Grassroots Inc., the faction of the Democratic Party supportive of Mayor Byron W. Brown, endorsed three candidates; two of them – Barbara A. Seals Nevergold and Samuel P. Davis – collected more signatures on their petitions than all but one other School Board candidate.
And one of the best-known candidates, Bernard A. Tolbert, who ran for mayor last year, has received the backing of some county Democratic leaders, mostly not aligned with the mayor, and a Republican state senator and county clerk.
Ultimately, the three people selected to fill the seats in this year’s at-large election will help determine the trajectory of the Buffalo schools, which serve tens of thousands of students.
The broad base of supporters for various candidates underscores the divide that exists between city leaders, along with the tension and disagreement in the community at large about the effectiveness of the schools and the direction the district should take.
And ultimately, two people not up for election have a major stake in the race’s outcome: board member Carl P. Paladino and Superintendent Pamela C. Brown.
“I think people sense that what this might come down to is not a vote for individual board members but a referendum on whether the superintendent keeps her job or not,” said Kevin Hardwick, a political science professor at Canisius College and an Erie County legislator.
“She symbolizes something,” he added. “Perhaps it’s the problems of the past. That’s the way a lot of people will look at it when they’re voting.”
Paladino raised the stakes in this year’s election after winning the Park District seat last year. Once in his seat at the board, he immediately took up his quest to fire Brown, but his effort fell one vote short.
Since then, the former gubernatorial candidate and wealthy developer has vowed to do – and spend – whatever it takes to help candidates who will support his effort to oust the superintendent.
“I think the fact that Carl Paladino has had a great degree of success shaking things up, and appears to be only a vote or two away from having his views taken seriously, has encouraged a lot of people who maybe would not get involved typically,” Hardwick said.
Support from heavy hitters
Whether by design or by happenstance, Quinn and Pierce have attracted many of the same supporters. Both have said they would fire the superintendent.
In interviews with The Buffalo News, Pierce downplayed the role that local political leaders played in her campaign. At one point, in March, she said friends and family members were helping her gather the more than 1,000 signatures needed to get onto the ballot. Later, she said Democrats and Republicans were helping, too.
Among them, it turns out, were some heavy hitters, including Democratic Assemblyman Michael P. Kearns, Buffalo Republican Chairman William Nowakowski, former Republican Chairman Dennis V. Ryan, a number of Republican committee members, and David Pfaff, a Democratic operative tied to G. Steven Pigeon.
Quinn, a Democrat, said nearly half of the signatures on his petition were collected by members of the Republican Party.
Nowakowski, the city’s GOP chairman, said the local Republican committee was not making a coordinated effort to get involved, but he sensed greater interest among committee members and in the community.
“I think people are much more tuned in than in the past,” he said. “I think people really understand we have pretty bad, failing schools, and that affects everyone’s quality of life.”
In addition to the volunteer help Quinn has received from local political figures, he also has received $34,000 in donations from a number of the city’s most prominent businessmen, including Uniland Development president Carl J. Montante; Rich Products chairman Robert E. Rich Jr.; and F. James McGuire and Frank McGuire of the McGuire Group. Quinn also received $3,000 from Students First, a national education reform group started by former Washington, D.C., chancellor Michelle Rhee.
Meanwhile, those who support Brown have stepped up to combat Paladino’s effort.
One of Brown’s key supporters – Nevergold, the current board president – is running for election; she was appointed to her seat in early 2012 after another board member stepped aside.
Nevergold’s circle of supporters includes some of the most prominent leaders in the black community: George K. Arthur, the former Common Council president; Frank Mesiah, president of the Buffalo branch of the NAACP; Yvonne Hargrave, former interim superintendent of schools; and School Board members Florence Johnson, Mary Ruth Kapsiak and Sharon Belton Cottman.
Another supporter of the superintendent, Florence Johnson, is giving up her seat on the board. She recruited attorney Samuel P. Davis to run for a seat and has been grooming him for the campaign.
Davis, like Nevergold, has been endorsed by both Citizen Action, a group affiliated with the state teachers union, and Grassroots, the Democratic Party faction tied to the mayor.
Nevergold and Davis both also have gotten help from Clarence Lott, of the East Side Political Network, former School Board member Kinzer Pointer, and Kerry Saunders, a staff member for State Sen. Tim Kennedy.
Saunders also carried petitions for Gizelle Stokes, stepdaughter of Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes.
Stokes, Nevergold and Davis all said they would retain Brown as superintendent. All three were endorsed by Grassroots.
Former School Board member Janique Curry, who is the chairwoman of Grassroots’ nominating committee, said the group looks for candidates who are knowledgeable about a variety of issues, from the budget to school reform efforts.
Every candidate is invited to interview for the group’s endorsement. This year, just six of the 15 candidates did. In addition to interviewing Davis, Nevergold and Stokes, the group also met with Adrian Fitzgerald Harris, Wendy S. Mistretta and Stephon Wright.
Curry said she wasn’t entirely surprised to see which candidates sought the group’s support in this politically charged election, including the notable absence of Paladino-backed candidates Pierce and Quinn.
“People are motivated by this need to get rid of the superintendent or to have this control,” she said. “They’ve displayed it’s about personalities, it’s about politics and it’s about finances. At the end of your day, your responsibility is to the children in this district.”
A key endorsement
Historically, one of the key endorsements in Buffalo School Board races is that of the Buffalo Teachers Federation, a group that provides money as well as volunteers for candidates.
This year, the BTF has endorsed the two incumbents – Nevergold and attorney John B. Licata – as well as Ralph R. Hernandez, a longtime board member who lost his seat in last year’s election.
In addition to support from the union, Licata got significant help collecting signatures from Citizen Action, a group closely tied to the union. He also has support from various current and former elected officials from throughout the city, including former Erie County legislator Gregory Olma, from the East Side; Assemblyman Kearns, from South Buffalo; Council Member Joseph Golombek Jr., from the North District; and former School Board member Louis J. Petrucci, from South Buffalo.
Union president Philip Rumore said the Buffalo Teachers Federation chose candidates who had experience working in education, citing Nevergold’s career as a teacher and professor. Licata’s advocacy for a Medical Campus high school and his push to make kindergarten mandatory also resonated with the union, Rumore said.
The union so far appears to have given the most help to Hernandez, who did not decide to run until 10 days before the nominating petitions were due. About 1,600 of Hernandez’s 1,900 petition signatures were collected by people with addresses in the New York City area. Rumore said he was aware people were coming in from out of town to gather signatures for him, but stopped short of saying he was responsible.
“Most people hire people to circulate petitions for them,” Rumore said. “You look at somebody who’s spending $35,000 on their campaign and then you’re worried about someone hiring people to circulate their petitions. I don’t think that’s a big deal.”
A Facebook page for Tobias Buckle, one of the people who carried petitions for Hernandez, referenced his trip and indicated he is a project director for the Working Families Party, which has connections to the state teachers union.
A spokesperson for NYSUT said he could not immediately provide information about whether the state union would get involved in this year’s election.
Former mayoral candidates
Two of last year’s mayoral candidates are running this year for a seat on the School Board. But only one has secured an endorsement from a key group in the city.
Tolbert was endorsed Saturday by the Unity Coalition, the segment of the Democratic Party that does not support the mayor. He sought other endorsements – including those from the Buffalo Niagara Partnership and the Buffalo Teachers Federation – but did not get them.
Tolbert’s website, though, does list a number of elected officials and community leaders supporting him, including Democratic Erie County Legislator Betty Jean Grant, Republican Erie County Clerk Christopher Jacobs, former Democratic chairman Len Lenihan, Democratic Assemblyman Michael P. Kearns, Republican State Sen. Patrick M. Gallivan, East Side activists Dwayne Ferguson and Sam Herbert, and School Board members James Sampson, Theresa Harris-Tigg and Kapsiak.
Sergio Rodriguez, a Republican who ran for mayor without the blessing of the GOP establishment, said the only endorsement he sought was from the teachers union. He did not get it.
“We’re not looking for other endorsements,” Rodriguez said. “We want to stay as independent as possible.”
Some of the other candidates seem somewhat surprised by support they have received.
Consider, for instance, longtime parent advocate Mistretta. Her supporters so far include the sort of people you might expect to find, such as Jessica Bauer Walker, who has served with Mistretta as a leader on the District Parent Coordinating Council.
But Mistretta also is a registered Democrat whose backers include Joseph Totaro, a Republican committee member; Mike Madigan, a Grand Island Republican committee member who ran for Congress; and Rus Thompson, a local tea party leader who has been an outspoken opponent of the NY SAFE Act.
About a half-dozen people who carried petitions for Pierce also collected signatures for Mistretta.
Mistretta credited the help to her campaign manager, Republican Victoria Poczkalski, who recruited people to carry petitions.
“These are people who are used to getting out there and petitioning,” Mistretta said. “The people who I meet know I’m not a politician. I’m an educator.”
Paladino said that while he is not officially backing Mistretta’s candidacy, he does favor her among the other contenders. Mistretta has indicated she would support firing the superintendent.
Another parent advocate, Bryon McIntyre, has run unsuccessfully for the School Board four times since 2004, at least once falling just a few dozen votes short of victory. This year, as is his custom, McIntyre did the vast majority of the footwork himself. He personally collected nearly 1,500 of his 2,100 signatures. What’s different this year is that he has secured the support of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, a group of business leaders that has donated several thousand dollars to its favored candidates in recent elections.
Although he lacks the political connections and influence of Paladino’s candidates, McIntyre shares their opinion on one key issue: He supports firing the superintendent.
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