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As Buffalo’s School Board election nears, a look at the forces at work

Teachers are increasingly frustrated that district and union leaders cannot reach a new agreement to replace their long-expired contract.

Business officials consider the city school district the greatest obstacle to the region’s economic development.

Political leaders are worried as well about the direction of the still-struggling city schools.

Throughout the city, stakeholders see much at stake in this year’s School Board election, which will determine who fills six of nine seats on the board and ultimately sets the direction of the school system.

Some want the current majority to maintain control and continue pushing for changes such as a longer school day, more charter schools and a teacher contract that holds educators more accountable for performance.

Those on the other side, however, see majority members as combative enemies of teachers who have accomplished little in their two years controlling the board besides fueling division. They believe the board should provide more support for teachers through additional counselors and a contract that brings compensation on par with suburban districts.

The debate about which approach holds most promise for turning around Buffalo’s schools has drawn unprecedented interest and involvement in this year’s election.

Here is a look at the forces at work for the elections Tuesday:

The labor unions

Just days before voters head to the polls, about 200 teachers and their supporters gathered in Niagara Square carrying signs with slogans such as “Reclaim our schools” and “Stop testing.”

The group that gathered Saturday included impressive representation from Niagara to Monroe counties, and included teachers unions from West Seneca, Hamburg and East Aurora, along with the local AFL-CIO affiliate.

“We need to take back the board,” roared incumbent Sharon Belton-Cottman, who is running unopposed to maintain her seat representing the Ferry District.

The crowd cheered when 18-year-old Austin Harig noted he is trying to oust Carl Paladino.

It was a dramatic end to a monthslong push to get candidates more aligned to the union’s agenda elected to the School Board.

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RELATED: Meet the candidates running for Buffalo’s Board of Education

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The Buffalo Teachers Federation along with its parent organization, New York State United Teachers, circulated petitions, sent out fliers and attempted to knock majority bloc members off of the ballot.

It also was no coincidence that NYSUT coordinated “Days of Actions” that allowed them to organize rallies, forums and other events at schools, giving them access to teachers in the critical weeks before the election.

Their efforts also drew attention from parents active in the statewide Opt Out movement, who made donations to Harig. The Williamsville Teachers Association also encouraged its members to donate to his campaign.

While the influential teachers union is no stranger to School Board races, this year it had an intriguing ally – the local AFL-CIO affiliate.

President Richard Lipsitz Jr. said local unions are increasingly concerned about the economic future of the region, and how education could affect worker development. It also takes issue with Paladino’s tendency to circulate offensive material.

The organization doesn’t normally get involved in School Board races, but this year threw its support behind the candidates endorsed by the Buffalo Teachers Federation, offering campaign assistance and operating phone banks.

And while coordinators say the appearance of NYSUT President Karen Magee at their annual awards dinner was a coincidence, her speech offered a platform to draw attention to education issues before an audience of union workers.

“This will be a people’s election because people are just disgusted with what the five majority members have done,” said Mike Deely, NYSUT’s regional director.

Along with Belton-Cottman and Harig, the union supports Theresa Harris-Tigg, Hope Jay, Jennifer Mecozzi and Paulette Woods.

Business community

In a private room at the Mansion on Delaware, some of the city’s most influential business leaders held court with State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia and Buffalo Schools Superintendent Kriner Cash. School Board majority members Larry Quinn and James P. Sampson, who is running for re-election in the West District, also attended.

Elia talked about the importance of holding schools and teachers accountable for their performance in the weeks before the election.

Both the 43-79, a group of prominent business leaders, and the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, contributed to Sampson’s campaign and that of fellow incumbent majority member Jason M. “Jay” McCarthy. The partnership also supports Bryon McIntyre.

Members of the business community have supported the majority’s agenda, despite stumbles in their first two years.

Business leaders have said their interest stems from concerns about economic and workforce development.

And their continued support came despite pressure from one influential developer, Louis P. Ciminelli, who early in the race attempted to pressure the partnership to withhold support from majority members. His company, LPCiminelli, is in litigation with the board over how much it profited from $1.3 billion construction project to renovate city schools.

After LPCiminelli spokesman Kevin Schuler acknowledged the company wanted to oust majority members who support the legal challenge, the construction company fell relatively quiet. LPCiminelli does, however, have strong connections to other players jockeying to influence this year’s races, including Democratic Party leaders, the Grassroots political organization and labor unions with which it does business.

“We believe they’ve wasted time and resources,” Schuler said of the majority.

Schuler did not return a call for comment on the company’s more recent involvement.

The political machine

Line by line, they called voters who signed petitions supporting majority-aligned candidates and looked for ways to question their legitimacy.

Attorneys with ties to the Democratic Party then hauled the signers into court to testify.

It was a well-coordinated attack against members of the majority bloc, and one unusual even in contests for higher offices.

Perhaps the most influential – and unexpected force – in this year’s race is the local Democratic Party, which drove the effort to knock majority candidates off of the ballot. All but one of the candidates – Paladino – is registered as a Democrat, suggesting the party’s support was related to special interests – not partisan politics.

Joseph P. McMahon, a special assistant to Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz, called McCarthy supporters in an effort to invalidate their signatures. Other McCarthy supporters received calls from employees of State Sen. Marc C. Panepinto, the Buffalo Democrat who pleaded guilty to misdemeanor election fraud in 2001.

Their involvement fueled speculation that some, namely Poloncarz, may be using the race to position themselves to run for higher office.

Poloncarz and other Democratic Party officials say they have been focused on the North District race between McCarthy and Jay, and that their primary concern is electing the best-qualified candidates to the board.

“A lot of people are very concerned about the future of the Buffalo School Board,” Poloncarz said. “It’s an issue that we deal with often when it comes to economic development.”

Although the Democratic Party has become a force in the race, one group that has been unusually quiet is Grassroots.

The organization of Mayor Byron W. Brown, Grassroots has historically been involved in races, issuing endorsements and supporting candidates. And while early in this election cycle it was rumored they planned to put up candidates, the political organization became quiet.

The lack of activity came even as political foe Betty Jean Grant, an influential organizer herself, is the campaign manager for Woods, a candidate against McIntyre in the Central District.

Parents

Although the district’s long-standing parent group, the District Parent Coordinating Council, cannot officially get involved in elections, two candidates – McIntyre and Patricia Elliott – are active members of the organization.

And although the DPCC has typically aligned itself with the majority on many issues, the pair represents an interesting prospect for the board – a new faction.

The DPCC and its members have been regular challengers of the district and continue to criticize school leaders for their response to a complaint the group filed with the Office of Civil Rights.

The group last year also attempted to gain more influence by pushing for its president, Samuel L. Radford III, to have a non-voting seat on the School Board.

The parent council previously sought to use the School Board races to elect candidates sympathetic to its agenda to the board. Other DPCC officers, past or present, who have run for the School Board include Wendy S. Mistretta, a candidate for an at-large seat in 2014 and for the North District seat in 2013. She lost both races. The Rev. Kinzer M. Pointer, a former DPCC president, waged an unsuccessful write-in campaign in 2013 for the Ferry District seat. Pointer also was on the 2010 ballot for the Ferry District and lost. In 2007, Pointer fell short as a write-in candidate for the Ferry District incumbent. He had been appointed to the board vacancy the previous March but was ruled off the ballot because of faulty nominating petitions. And in 2004, Pointer ran for an at-large seat and lost.

Elliott and McIntyre have campaigned on the “Parents Coalition for Students’ Rights” platform, saying their movement is about empowering parents – or guardians – and not being controlled by board factions or special interest groups.

“I find, as I get older, that if you don’t march to folks’ drumbeat, they soon cut you off,” said McIntyre, vice president of the District Parent Coordinating Council. “My interest is working with the children.”

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