The political meddling in Tuesday’s election for Buffalo School Board threatens a return to policies that for years consigned schoolchildren to a second-rate education.
Acting less mature than the children they claim they want to help, various factions of adults have displayed some bad behavior and even bullying tactics over claims of fraudulent signatures and improper residency.
There are forces on both sides attempting to use legal and political muscle to influence the election and reverse the reforms led by the majority bloc’s 5-4 control of the board.
Most notably involved in the heated election is County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz, who is working to unseat Jason M. “Jay” McCarthy from his North District seat. As a resident of the district and a leading political figure, Poloncarz presumably wants to improve education in Buffalo. That’s why it is shocking that he is supporting the North District candidate who opposes virtually all of the changes that together stand a chance of righting the district.
His candidate, Hope R. Jay, opposes extending the school year and school day, opposes more charter schools and opposes the receivership program, in addition to having never attended a School Board meeting and not being familiar with teacher contract issues or the lawsuit over the school reconstruction project.
Joining in the effort to defeat McCarthy was Joseph P. McMahon, a special assistant to Poloncarz, who worked to invalidate signatures on McCarthy’s nominating petitions.
Elsewhere, Amherst Democratic Chairman Jerome D. Schad, an attorney, was in court recently trying to oust Colleen E. Russell, a supporter of the board majority bloc and an ally of developer and board lightning rod Carl P. Paladino.
It was Russell whose family had to endure the worst bullying when a man pounded on her door around 8:30 p.m. on a recent night accusing her of not living in the East District. She and Patricia A. Elliott, who have both been knocked off the ballot, were challenging incumbent Theresa A. Harris-Tigg.
The political interference in what is supposed to be a non-political election isn’t limited to Democrats. Several attorneys and political operatives with ties to the Republican Party are representing majority bloc candidates, among them Jeffrey T. Bochiechio, who was the chief fundraiser for Rep. Chris Collins, also the former Erie County executive. Joseph T. Burns, a Republican lawyer and former official at the state Board of Elections in Albany, who last year was selected for a top post at the Erie County Water Authority, has been in court representing majority bloc candidates. Burns is also a close associate of Erie County Republican Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy.
Add to that teacher union support for anti-reform candidates and the reported involvement by the founder of the Grassroots political organization and County Legislator Betty Jean Grant, D-Buffalo, who is truly no fan of Grassroots.
The Buffalo School Board election has turned into a high-stakes contest, but it was surprising to see the depth of the county executive’s involvement.
Sources close to Poloncarz not long ago claimed the county executive was not inserting himself into the School Board race, but rather simply supporting a longtime friend in the race against McCarthy.
Then a voicemail message surfaced in which Poloncarz told Board President James M. Sampson: “Turns out it appears there were some fraudulent petitions that we identified of Jay McCarthy’s that were signed by an Arnold Kacalski, who appears to have done the same thing for you.”
The county executive later acknowledged his involvement in helping Hope Jay, which included urging the county Democratic chairman to contribute to her campaign. He also condescendingly dismissed the candidacy of McCarthy, co-owner of a restaurant, with a Donald Trump-like insult that should be beneath an elected official: “I’d rather have a woman with a background in social work than a bartender.”
Other McCarthy supporters received calls from employees of State Sen. Marc C. Panepinto, D-Buffalo, who won his seat with strong backing from the teachers union despite pleading guilty to misdemeanor election fraud in 2001. Panepinto is under a political cloud and is not seeking re-election.
A seat on the School Board essentially equates to sitting on the board of directors of a billion-dollar corporation. For that members receive a $5,000 annual stipend.
You have to be dedicated to want the job. But the future of Buffalo’s schoolchildren and the continued renaissance of the region depend on the School Board being dedicated to fixing the schools. “Fixing” means moving the district forward. Installing a board that would return the district to the bad old days would be a disaster.