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Power, politics and money play a big role in ‘non-partisan’ Buffalo School Board races

The “non-partisan” Buffalo School Board election is turning into a mix of politics, money and power as some of the most influential factions in the city – and beyond – are backing and opposing candidates in a bid to determine the direction of the district.

At stake is the reform agenda pushed by the current majority bloc and, while most candidates express at least conditional support for Superintendent Kriner Cash, his ambitious plans.

Ferry: No contest

There is no race in the Ferry District, where incumbent Sharon Belton-Cottman is running unopposed after an early challenger failed to gather enough signatures to get on the ballot.

Belton-Cottman suggested she was looking forward to a contest to prove her record on the School Board.

Belton-Cottman is a member of the board’s minority bloc and is a frequent adversary to Carl Paladino. She doesn’t mince words, and during her time on the board has been a consistent voice about the problems and struggles that Buffalo students face outside of school. She also is vocal about inequity among the schools, the need to improve academic achievement among minorities and hiring a more racially diverse teaching staff.

Belton-Cottman seeks her second full term on the board after her unsuccessful bid last year for a seat on the Common Council.

The Buffalo Teachers Federation backs her.

Same aim, rival camps

The two candidates running to replace the retiring Mary Ruth Kapsiak in the Central District have the same message.

Both Bryon J. McIntyre and Paulette Woods see education as a social justice issue. Both have seen what happens to kids when schools fail them.

But politically, they fall in very different camps, and that could drive who wins the seat.

McIntyre, a vice president of the District Parent Coordinating Council, has the support of Maurice Garner, the founder of Grassroots, the political organization aligned with Mayor Byron W. Brown and Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes.

Woods has backing from other prominent leaders in the black community, including County Legislator Betty Jean Grant, former Common Council President George K. Arthur and Build of Buffalo President Charley H. Fisher III, also a former Council member. In previous elections, Grant has worked against Grassroots candidates.

Either candidate could introduce a new political dynamic to the board, which is now split into two factions.

Many of McIntyre’s views align with the majority bloc, and he refused support from New York State United Teachers and the Buffalo Teachers Federation.

“It’s not that I’m anti-union, but it’s obvious they have control on the board,” he said, referring to their support of minority bloc members.

But his connections to Garner, who has done contracting work with LPCiminelli, have raised questions among some majority bloc members. The board is in litigation with Ciminelli over how much the contractor profited from the $1.3 billion school reconstruction project.

Woods shares many views with the minority bloc and said she would have supported former Superintendent Pamela C. Brown, who left two years ago under pressure after the majority bloc gained control of the board.

Although Woods has support from the BTF, she also has proposed some ideas that would not likely be favored by the union – including making teachers pay 15 to 20 percent of their health insurance premium.

“They may or may not like what I’m going to say,” she said.

Parents vs. non-parent

Incumbent Theresa A. Harris-Tigg, who has served on the board since 2013, still sees herself as a “newcomer.”

Her challenger, Colleen E. Russell, also could be considered a rookie because she has never run for public office before.

Russell – who is backed by Park District incumbent Carl P. Paladino - sometimes reads from prepared statements that are clearly aligned with the board majority.

Patricia A. Elliott, another challenger, also at times relies on scripted statements in debates and endorsement interviews. Elliott did not have the mandatory minimum of 500 valid signatures to be on the ballot, but she said she may launch a write-in campaign.

Unlike Harris-Tigg, both Russell and Elliott have children now enrolled in the Buffalo Public Schools, and both women have touted that experience, emphasizing the perspective that having a child in public schools directly affects one’s School Board decisions.

“I’m definitely involved in empowering parents to see what’s going on at the school level, especially parents who are very involved in schools,” Russell said.

Elliott was campaigning alongside Central District candidate Bryon J. McIntyre on a “Parents Coalition for Students’ Rights” platform to empower parents and guardians.

“I need to make sure that parents like me understand what’s going on,” Elliott said. “We need to have parents on the board.”

Harris-Tigg is not convinced the board needs a parent.

“We are there to represent all parents,” she said.

A parent who has child in a district school might make decisions regarding that school that could exclude other children and schools, she said.

“I think parents need to use … their voting power, use their influence. I mean they do have the power, and they should get with board members, not just their own – all of them – and make known their concerns and where we’re falling short,” she said.

No current school board member is the parent of a child enrolled in a traditional district school.

Big money, clear choice

North District voters have a clear choice in the race between Jason M. “Jay” McCarthy and Hope R. Jay, two candidates on opposite ends of the educational spectrum.

McCarthy is a two-term incumbent.

Jay is a first-time candidate who has never attended a Board of Education meeting.

Jay opposes more charter schools in Buffalo.

McCarthy sends one of his own kids to a charter school.

McCarthy supports extending the school day and favors using standardized tests for teacher evaluations.

Jay opposes extending the school day and opposes using standardized tests to evaluate teachers.

McCarthy, 41, was a restaurant and bar manager before recently opening his own establishment, The Place on Lexington Avenue. Since being elected in 2010, McCarthy has been an advocate for better health and wellness and vocational training for students. He is a member of the board’s majority bloc.

Jay, 47, was a social worker before becoming an attorney with a private practice, following in the footsteps of her father, David Jay. She counts Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz as a friend and supporter. She is endorsed by the Buffalo Teachers Federation.

The match-up could be the one to watch, as it is a race that could shift the balance of power on the School Board.

It’s also the race where the most money is being spent.

Jay and McCarthy combined have raised more than $20,000, according to their financial filings reported at the beginning of April.

Unions vs. Paladino On paper, it looks like a David vs. Goliath mismatch. An 18-year-old high school student is challenging one of the most powerful men in the city.

Austin Harig, a senior at Hutchinson-Technical Central High School, wants to oust Paladino from his Park District seat, and whether he succeeds could affect which faction controls the board.

Paladino, the developer and former gubernatorial candidate, has been a lightning rod for criticism since he joined the School Board in 2013. He has vigorously pushed reform policies such as charter schools, vouchers and overhauling the union contract.

Many credit him with drawing attention to the failings of the school district, and in the 2014 at-large election he reshaped the board by helping Larry Quinn and Patricia Pierce get elected to form a new majority bloc.

Now, his critics want to change that.

Paladino is widely considered a tough candidate to beat in the South Buffalo district, which some refer to as “Carl Country.”

Harig, however, has some influential backers of his own, including the Western New York Area Labor Federation and the 70,000-member Buffalo AFL-CIO Central Labor Council, which do not typically get involved in school board elections.

The Buffalo Teachers Federation – a frequent Paladino target – asked teachers to help collect signatures for Harig’s nominating petition. His campaign has drawn support from teachers outside of the city, with some suburban unions, including the Williamsville Teachers Association, encouraging members to support him.

“I’m not a millionaire, but I’m running against one, so every dollar counts,” Harig wrote on his fund-raising web page.

Harig is not shy about playing up his status as a high school senior, and some supporters have made the race an issue of supporting a Buffalo student.

Paladino, who has been busy campaigning for presidential candidate Donald Trump, has been quiet during the School Board election season, prompting Harig to start a hashtag #Palanoshow.

“Paladino is ‘not interested’ in a fair debate or exchange of ideas with a student in his district,” Harig wrote in a Facebook post about Paladino missing a debate at the Burchield Penney Art Center. “What makes you think he is interested in listening to what the people of Buffalo think is best in their schools?”

Paladino declined an endorsement meeting with The Buffalo News editorial board and did not fill out a survey distributed to all of the candidates that provides information for the newspaper’s voter guides and elections stories.

Reform … or not

The quintessential reformer versus the quintessential union and community activist.

That describes the potential race between School Board President James M. Sampson and Jennifer L. Mecozzi, who wants to take his West District seat.

Sampson is part of the board’s five-member majority and has advocated reforms since he was elected to the School Board in 2013. He will decide by Monday whether to challenge a ruling by the Erie County Board of Elections that he fell 31 signatures short of the 500 needed to make the ballot.

Mecozzi, who has never run for public office, is often a vocal critic of the School Board, especially at its biweekly meetings. She touts her record of leadership and activism, particularly with PUSH Buffalo since 2006, first as a member, then board chairwoman and now as organizing director. She said those skills will come in handy if she is elected to the School Board.

Sampson and Mecozzi have contrasting relationships with local teachers.

The incumbent, who wants the backing of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership representing the business community, has been critical of the Buffalo Teachers Federation and its opposition to the reform agenda, including more charter schools.

Sampson said he also is concerned that the rising teacher union influence on the state Board of Regents – a former superintendent and teacher who has been critical of the state’s reform efforts was elected Regents chancellor last month – could hurt Buffalo’s reform efforts, which had been getting support from Albany.

“We need an agenda that is focused exclusively on kids,” he said. “I’m concerned there seems to be a direct line now between teachers unions and the Board of Regents.”

Conversely, Mecozzi has a bond with educators and is seeking the BTF endorsement. She is also a member of the Buffalo Parent-Teacher Organization, which is backed by teacher unions, and her campaign manager is a BPTO community liaison and a district teacher.

The two candidates also take up opposite sides of the spectrum when it comes to reform.

Sampson, for instance, favors a hybrid enrollment system in which some seats in a school are reserved for students living in the neighborhood and other seats are available to all through a school choice program. And he thinks the district should create a second City Honors School.

Mecozzi disagrees about a second City Honors and thinks the district should continue the existing school choice approach to student placement.

email: tlankes@buffnews.com., dwilliams@buffnews.com and jrey@buffnews.com

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