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6 of 9 seats at stake as city School Board faces key election

With control of the Buffalo School Board at stake – or perhaps no five-member majority emerging – candidates already are scrambling for support in the May 3 election in which the six district seats on the nine-member board will be up for grabs.

If history is a guide, a minuscule percentage of registered voters will determine the fate of Superintendent Kriner Cash’s agenda, the current majority’s push for charter schools and other reforms, and the efforts of the minority bloc and the teachers union to change the district’s direction.

It may take several weeks to sort out all the speculation, rumors and political intrigue. Here is what is known so far:

• Five of the six incumbents will seek re-election to three-year terms, with challengers emerging already in three of the districts. Expect more.

• The theme from the last election – which created a board divided along ideological and racial lines – will carry over this year. On one side are those continuing to push an aggressive reform agenda; on the other side are those lining up behind a Buffalo Teachers Federation frustrated by the litany of mandates coming down from Albany.

• Outsiders with a keen interest in what’s happening in the Buffalo Public Schools are looking to jump into the fray and use their influence to help sway the direction of the district.

Several insiders, for example, say that Grassroots, the political organization of Mayor Byron W. Brown, wants to continue the reform agenda by making a big push to recruit candidates and pick up the seats in the Central, East and Ferry districts now occupied by the board’s minority bloc. Last year, Assemblywoman Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes, D-Buffalo, of Grassroots, sponsored a mayoral-control bill that would have dissolved the School Board and turned control over to the mayor.

Others tied to Grassroots, however, said the organization will go through its usual endorsement process.

“We don’t have a candidate we’re backing. We go through our general process” of interviewing people who have approached the group’s nominating committee, said Janique S. Curry, committee chairwoman. “If candidates are interested, they’ll find their way to us.”

Incumbents such as board President James M. Sampson of the West District expect the New York State United Teachers union to come after him and the rest of the board majority up for re-election: Jason M. McCarthy of North and Carl P. Paladino of Park.

He was right.

BTF President Philip Rumore was out of town and not available to comment. But NYSUT Regional Director Michael K. Deely primarily criticized Paladino, Sampson and McCarthy for focusing on charter schools and not fixing the district.

“Carl and Jim and Jay have not done anything to garner teachers’ support or union support,” Deely said. “Anybody who is caring deeply about schools, they’ll get support from NYSUT and BTF.”

Paladino said the BTF should not support candidates for the Board of Education, calling it a “tragic conflict,” especially as it relates to union contract negotiations.

“He wants to put his people onto the board and then negotiate with his people on the board,” said Paladino, who is seeking his second term. “I think that’s not only unethical, I think it’s illegal. It’s highly conflicted and not in the best interest of kids and the community.”

There’s also speculation that longtime political figures George K. Arthur, a former Common Council president, and Charley H. Fisher III are quietly working to field candidates and generate community backing. Fisher is president of BUILD of Buffalo, which founded what many consider the city’s first community school, BUILD Academy, in 1969.

Fisher pointed to the Central District, where Mary Ruth Kapsiak is the lone incumbent not seeking re-election.

“It’s all-important to have that seat,” Fisher said. “I’m going to be talking to people.”

Another intriguing wrinkle is the possible involvement of Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz, who is supporting a friend running in the North District, although a source close to the county executive says he is not involving himself in the election.

The battles begin Tuesday, the first day that candidates can begin collecting the 500 signatures needed to run. That process will last until April 5, when the nominating petitions are due and the final field begins to take shape.

“I don’t want to overstate it, but this is probably one of the most critical elections,” said Samuel L. Radford III, president of the District Parent Coordinating Council.

Radford believes that the district needs to keep moving forward with its reform agenda – improving early literacy, lowering class sizes, turning schools around under state receivership – which he thinks is showing promise under Cash. If not, Radford fears a return to the status quo for Buffalo schools.

Five of the six district representatives have told The Buffalo News that they will be seeking re-election – Sharon M. Belton-Cottman in Ferry, Theresa A. Harris-Tigg in East, McCarthy in North, Paladino in Park and Sampson in West – while Kapsiak’s retirement after three terms is expected to create a wide-open battle in Central.

“We have to continue what we’re strong in and improve what is weak,” said Belton-Cottman, a two-term board member, who emphasized the need to build upon parent engagement. “We need parents involved in a big way to turn schools around.”

“The work is not done,” said Sampson, who is seeking a second term, “but I think we’ve made some substantial progress despite the divide on the board.”

“I don’t feel our job is done,” said McCarthy, who is seeking a third term. “You have a desire to carry this job through and put it back on track.”

Harris-Tigg, who did not return calls for comment, is seeking her second term on the board.

Currently, the majority bloc has a 5-4 margin, with Sampson, McCarthy and Paladino aligned with at-large members Larry Quinn and Patricia A. Pierce, whose seats are not on the ballot this year.

Other candidates have started to emerge, as well, including Hope R. Jay, a local attorney with ties to Poloncarz. Jay plans to challenge McCarthy.

West Side community activist Jennifer L. Mecozzi will try to unseat Sampson. So will Adrian F. Harris, who ran unsuccessfully for the School Board twice before and has since moved into the West District. Conservative candidate Michael A. Woolford will run against Harris-Tigg.

And Dwayne Kelly, a frequent speaker at board meetings, is making a run for the seat being vacated by Kapsiak and already sees himself aligned with the board majority.

Kelly is chief of staff for Western New York Media Professionals, an organization trying to restore the historic Broadway Theater and eventually teach digital arts to high school students. Paladino, a leader of the majority bloc, is the manager of the project, which is in the design phase now.

But the restoration of the landmark is only part of the reason he aligns himself with the majority bloc, Kelly said. It’s also because he supports a reform agenda that includes expanding high-performing charter schools and a return to neighborhood schools at the elementary level. High school, he said, is a different story because those years are a time in children’s development when they should be dealing with various cultures and ethnicities.

Kelly likes Cash’s reform agenda, particularly lengthening the school day and the school year and providing professional development for teachers. He supports increasing teachers’ salaries in line with what their suburban peers are making; but first, he said, the teachers union should be more flexible about work rules and hours when it comes to negotiating a new contract. The district and the union have been at an impasse for 11 years.

Kelly sits on the site management team at East High School and is chairman of the alumni association. A retiree, he worked 20 years in litigation support for private attorneys and various companies and organizations in New York City.

Running against Sampson is Mecozzi. Like Kelly, she regularly attends School Board meetings and often speaks during the public comment portion. Mecozzi said that among her strengths is that she’s a parent of students enrolled in Buffalo Public Schools, with two daughters at Middle Early College and a kindergartner at Waterfront Elementary. That perspective has been missing on the board, she said.

“I’m a parent who just wants to get a real parent voice right now … because there are things that parents don’t know about,” said Mecozzi, who was endorsed by Citizen Action.

If elected, Mecozzi said, she would conduct regular question-and-answer sessions open to all with parents so they can understand various policies such as the district’s Code of Conduct, restorative justice program and receivership law. Mecozzi has been with PUSH Buffalo almost since it began in 2005, starting as a member, then board chairwoman and now organizing director.

Also running against Sampson is Harris, who moved to the West District in December 2014 for its diversity, he said.

No stranger to School Board elections, Harris ran unsuccessfully against Paladino for the Park District seat in 2013 and for an at-large seat in 2014. In 2013, Harris accepted help from NYSUT to promote his campaign but said he felt “really used” during the experience. Since then, he has been running as an independent, circulating his petitions with family and friends.

“It was always my intention to run as an independent not beholden to any special interest group,” Harris said. “I’m not adhering to any special interest groups.”

He has three children, including a son who graduated from South Park High School, and has been employed at Lancaster High School since 2006 – first as a teacher’s assistant and most recently as a school monitor since last year, he said. Prior to that, Harris worked in many capacities with children, including as a teacher’s aide at the Stanley G. Falk School; as a recreation specialist and residential trainer at Heritage Centers, which provide programs for the developmentally disabled; and as assistant athletic director for the Fresh Air Fund, which gives New York City children a summer experience away from their urban environments.

Being so invested in youth and education sets him apart from other candidates, Harris said.

“I speak education every single day. I interact with children every day to get them on the right path,” he said.

A retired Erie County Highway Department laborer, Woolford has run for public office multiple times. He is a former Democratic Committee vice chairman and former chairman of the City of Buffalo Republican Committee. Last year, he ran unsuccessfully on the Conservative Party line for the Masten District Common Council seat won by Democrat Ulysees O. Wingo Sr. In 1992 and 1994, Woolford ran on the Republican ticket for the Assembly and was defeated by Deputy Assembly Speaker Arthur O. Eve both times.

Woolford also ran unsuccessfully for the State Senate in 1990 as the Republican and Right to Life candidate against Democratic incumbent Anthony M. Masiello. In addition, Woolford twice ran unsuccessfully for the Erie County Legislature.

Aligned with the majority bloc, Woolford would like to see more career and technical education programs, and he supports neighborhood schools. As he takes on Harris-Tigg, his campaign slogan is “Bringing the Neighborhood Schools Back to the Neighborhood.”

“I look at board members, and I see they represent the kids’ best interests,” Woolford said of the majority bloc. “And most of the other board members are looking out for their family and friends.”

Meanwhile, Buffalo attorney Jay said she plans to take on McCarthy for his North District seat. She’s the daughter of the late well-known defense and civil rights attorney David G. Jay. She was an Erie County assistant district attorney from 2006 to 2010 before starting her own law firm in 2011.

“I think it’s unfortunate that the people on the board don’t seem to be able to put the needs of the children first,” Jay said, “and for anyone serving on the board, that should be the No. 1 priority.”

Jay indicated that Poloncarz, a Democrat, will sponsor her first fundraiser Thursday at a local law office. The Poloncarz camp said he isn’t sponsoring the event, but will attend. A source close to Poloncarz said it’s not a case of the county executive inserting himself into the School Board race, but rather his supporting a longtime friend.

Belton-Cottman, Harris-Tigg, Jay and Mecozzi have been endorsed by Citizen Action.

email: dswilliams@buffnews.com and jrey@buffnews.com