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Once-sleepy race for Buffalo School Board becomes ‘vicious’

The president of the School Board has been knocked off the ballot.

A two-term incumbent is being hauled into court on a claim his petitions are fraudulent.

A candidate putting her kids to bed is startled when a man pounds on her door to deliver a subpoena.

Welcome to hardball, bare-knuckle Buffalo politics – all for a seat on a School Board that pays $5,000 a year.

Petition challenges, counter challenges, lawsuits, charges of fraud and intimidation are playing out publicly, less than two weeks before the Board of Education elections on May 3.

And on full display is just how much is at stake among the factions grappling for control of a poor, struggling school district, where 61 percent of the students graduate and more than three-quarters qualify for free or reduced lunch.

The board’s majority bloc, which has been pushing its reform agenda and clinging to control of the board by a 5-to-4 margin, is on the ropes. The majority is beset by personal, professional and political distractions, while facing an organized effort by the local and state teachers unions, which wield increasing power in Albany, as well as in Buffalo.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen it this contentious,” said Buffalo Teachers Federation President Phil Rumore, who has been involved in School Board elections for more than 35 years and called this year’s election cycle “vicious.”

The elections have come a long way from five or 10 years ago, when candidates ran sleepy, overlooked campaigns on broad, feel-good themes. These days, the polarized and fractured nature of the School Board has led to more agenda-driven special-interest groups pledging money, in-kind support and resources to like-minded candidates looking to eliminate the competition.

That has resulted in 10 of 12 board candidates facing petition challenges and three facing election fraud allegations.

“Whenever you have two sides that have really strongly held beliefs,” Rumore said, “you’re going to get this.”

The great divide

The board majority points to the teachers union as the cause of much of the legal wrangling. Over the past three years, the majority bloc and the union have escalated their contract war over everything from wages to work rules.

“This is clearly the BTF and NYSUT that have the power and the money to pay for all the detail that would go into scrutinizing signatures on petitions,” said Jason M. McCarthy, a member of the majority who is running for a third term representing the North District. “It’s the only way this union feels they can compete with the general consensus of the community, which wants reform and wants changes to this school district.”

Rumore said it’s the board majority, not the unions, that has all the power and money. He also accused the majority of accomplishing little “reform.”

“On the one hand, I think the board majority has a quest for power and want to continue holding onto the power they have,” he said. “On the other hand, I think there’s a group of people who are unsatisfied with the progress that has been made by the new majority and the infighting that has been existing.”

Rumore also pointed out that the unions aren’t the only organizations involved in the election fight.

Six petition challenges – out of 17 – were filed by a representative from NYSUT. Another three were filed by the candidates themselves or their spouses. And it appears others may have been filed on behalf of parent groups and friends of various candidates.

But clearly, the election is going the union’s way.

All of the candidates endorsed by the Buffalo Teachers Federation – incumbents Theresa Harris-Tigg and Sharon Belton-Cottman, and candidates Hope Jay, Paulette Woods, Jennifer Mecozzi and Austin Harig – have made it to the ballot unchallenged or survived legal challenges against them.

Meanwhile, Board President James Sampson, a key member of the majority group, was knocked off the ballot for not having enough valid petition signatures. The challenge was brought by a member of PUSH BUffalo.

McCarthy and Colleen E. Russell, backed by majority member Carl P. Paladino, are answering to election fraud charges in court this week.

And Patricia Elliott, a parent advocate, also lost her fight for a ballot spot.

“It’s more than hardball politics,” said Samuel L. Radford III, president of the District Parent Coordinating Council. “On a level playing field, hardball politics is just part of the game.”

But the average parent can’t compete when you have all these large special-interest groups – the unions, business organizations, reform groups – vying for control, he said.

“What kind of chance does a parent, who is just a taxpayer, have against that kind of money?” Radford said. “It just seems so blatantly unfair.”

Intimidation

Russell was putting her three young kids to bed around 8:30 p.m. one night last week when she heard someone pounding on her door.

“He’s banging on the door like it’s the cops,” Russell said. “You would think it’s an emergency.”

Her husband answered and found a man looking to serve Russell court papers, accusing her of not actually living in the East District, where she’s running. The house where the man was knocking is in fact in the East District.

The man was swearing, yelling for her and asking if she actually lived at the Lovejoy residence, Russell said. Her husband eventually took the subpoena and the man left. But it was an eye-opener for the candidate.

Someone also showed up at her mother-in-law’s residence in Riverside, screaming and asking the same questions, she said.

“This is rough business,” Russell said. “I don’t know what else to think about it. It is getting a little scary.”

The intensity and rancor that have marked this year’s race are a far cry from prior years when board elections were likened to placid judicial campaigns, said former School Board member John Licata, a union-supported seat holder respected by board members on both sides until he failed to win re-election in 2014.

But after Say Yes Buffalo, an organization that helps pay tuition for Buffalo high school graduates to attend college, brought together high-profile community stakeholders to refocus attention on Buffalo Public Schools in 2012 and Paladino joined the School Board in 2013, the spotlight on the Buffalo School Board and district leadership got brighter.

The election of the candidates who gave the board a new majority in 2014 attracted more political and agenda-driven supporters and detractors as majority members staked out strong anti-union positions that many teachers considered irrelevant to the fundamental issues hurting the poverty-plagued district.

Pro-charter school business groups and some parent advocates allied themselves with majority members pushing an agenda of greater school choice and accountability.

“All of these factions are looking at shaping the philosophy of education on the School Board,” Licata said.

The road ahead

All of this contributes to a muddy election landscape.

NYSUT’s attempts to knock off candidates failed because the woman filing the challenges on union’s behalf did not live in the districts of the candidates she was challenging.

As for the rest:

• Park District candidate Harig, the 18-year-old high school student running against Paladino, survived a petition challenge from Paladino’s campaign director. Harig had help from lawyer Jerome Schad, chairman of the Amherst Democratic Party.

• Sampson’s petitions were successfully challenged by Johnnie Fenderson, a member of PUSH Buffalo. Jennifer L. Mecozzi, the other candidate for the West District, also belongs to PUSH Buffalo. Sampson said he will decide over the weekend whether to appeal in State Supreme Court.

• East District candidate Elliott, a parent advocate, was knocked off the ballot by Robert Tigg III, husband of the East District incumbent. Elliott is now pursuing a write-in campaign.

• Central District candidate Bryon McIntyre, an officer with the District Parent Coordinating Council, survived a petition challenge from Robert Keith Jones, a member of the rival Buffalo Parent-Teacher Organization, who was considered ineligible to object in that district.

• Three lawsuits alleging voter fraud were lodged against McCarthy, Sampson and Russell. The suits against McCarthy and Sampson challenged the validity of petition witness statements. The suits were filed by the same people who challenged the candidates’ petition signatures.

Russell will appear in court Monday to address the allegations against her. McCarthy is scheduled to appear Tuesday.

Sampson’s suit is considered moot because he was knocked off the ballot Thursday.

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