Despite being rife with infighting and turmoil, the Buffalo School Board has found plenty of interested candidates willing to join.
Sixteen applicants have thrown hats into the ring to replace ousted Board Member Carl P. Paladino — in a search process that began Wednesday at City Hall with the first round of public interviews for those seeking the vacant Park District seat.
Candidates include two former School Board members — Louis Petrucci and Donald Van Every — as well as Paladino's opponent in the last election, Austin Harig. There's a South Buffalo financial adviser, a retired school administrator, a pediatric psychologist, a credit manager and a county social services employee.
"I'm only looking for the job for 19 months, that's it," said Edwin Williams, one of the candidates. "I'm trying to be a good citizen by offering my services to the Buffalo Board of Education."
Sixteen candidates is a lot — considering that a total of 12 people ran for six board seats last year — and a bit surprising, as well.
"I did not anticipate there would be so much interest," said Barbara A. Seals Nevergold, the School Board president.
Nevergold acknowledged that the turbulence on the board in recent years has probably heightened public interest. And while the school district has had some major problems, Nevergold expects candidates want to be part of the advancements and improvements also starting to take place across the district.
"A lot of positive things are happening and this is a good time to be part of that momentum," Nevergold said.
But clouding the replacement process is a court appeal Paladino is expected to file.
State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia removed Paladino from the School Board last month for publicly disclosing private information from a School Board executive session — which happened in the wake of his inflammatory comments about former President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle.
That appeal has not yet been filed, but Paladino's legal team said Wednesday it is drafting the legal documents.
"At this point we're following the process we have to follow," Nevergold said. "Whatever Mr. Paladino does is up to him and for the courts to decide, but we have a tight 30-day window."
The board has 30 days to appoint a new representative for the Park District, which encompasses South Buffalo, according to state law. The replacement must be from the Park District and be approved by a majority of the remaining eight members on the board.
Besides being a resident of the Park District for a year, applicants must be a resident of Buffalo for at least three years. He or she also must be a U.S. citizen and have no felony convictions.
Seven of the current eight board members were in attendance Wednesday to interview the first five candidates. Only Board Member Larry Quinn was absent.
One by one, the candidates were brought into the board room, where each of the board members asked a question:
What is the biggest problem facing Buffalo schools?
How would you address its attendance problem?
What do you think about charter schools? Would you support more?
How can the district engage more parents?
What do you think about the schools in receivership and the powers granted the superintendent?
Each interview lasted about 30 minutes.
"I'm here to represent the neighborhood the best I can," said candidate Kevin Lafferty. "I want to ensure that 34,000 kids have a board that functions and is working with no distractions."
Lafferty is a credit manager for B&L Wholesale; he has a daughter who attends pre-K in the district. As part of a district parent group, Lafferty acknowledged he reluctantly signed off on a petition to have the entire board disbanded, but said he only did so to get rid of Paladino.
His wife teaches at a charter school, although he has spoken out against charters during his previous, unsuccessful candidacy for the Buffalo School Board.
"I think charter schools definitely have a place," candidate Patrick Phelan told the board. "I do wish there were other ways to fund them. They're taking resources away from you."
Phelan has a doctorate in education administration, served as labor relations director for the district during the 1990s and retired in 2015 as assistant superintendent for human resources in the West Seneca Central Schools. His wife, Jacquelyn, was a teacher and principal in Buffalo, and his two sons graduated from City Honors.
"I don't know why you haven't been able to duplicate City Honors in a couple of places," Phelan said during his interview. "Maybe that's something we can do."
Candidate Cate Flanagan is a pediatric psychologist at Women and Children's Hospital.
She spoke passionately about the need to focus on childhood literacy, the importance of raising high school graduation rates and serving on the board as an opportunity to give back to the community.
"I would even hold a Town Hall meeting and ask the people in my neighborhood,' How can I do better for you?" Flanagan told the board.
Candidate Rachel Casey, an employment counselor for the Erie County Department of Social Services, said South Buffalo has a reputation for not being welcoming, but she feels that's changing with younger families moving in.
One of the big issues for the district - and the city - is building parent confidence in the schools, so they don't leave for the suburbs, she said. Casey has a son who will be starting pre-K next year.
"That is part of my inspiration," Casey said, "because I want to make Buffalo Public Schools better for him."
Williams, the last candidate interviewed Wednesday, is a financial expert with Real Estate Capital Advisors, and said he would donate his School Board stipend to charity should he be appointed. He said he's ready to be a collaborative member of the Board of Education.
"When it becomes us against them, you lose," Williams said. "The most important thing is you have to have collaboration. You have to have give and take by all parties."
Nineteen people submitted applications before the Sept. 1 deadline, and 18 met the qualifications, according to district officials.
Two withdrew their names, bringing the total number to 16.
Nevergold — who went through the interview process herself in 2012 to fill a vacated seat — is personally looking for someone who can work "collaboratively" and "cohesively" with the rest of the board. She also wants someone who understands that the position involves more than attending two board meetings a month and that it requires significant time and attention.
The board has until Sept. 15 to choose Paladino's replacement.
If the board does not fill the seat within the 30-day time frame, Mayor Byron W. Brown has the authority to select a replacement, with confirmation from the Common Council.
Interviews are expected to continue Thursday and Monday, at which point the board is hoping to vote, Nevergold said.
"We need to wrap this up and have this done by next Thursday at the latest," said School Board Member Sharon Belton-Cottman, who ran Wednesday's interviews.
The 16 applicants in alphabetical order are:
- Kevin Becker
- Adam Bojak
- Kevin Buczak
- Rachel Casey
- Cate Flanagan
- Austin Harig
- Timothy Hartigan
- Kevin Lafferty
- Carolette Meadows
- Daniel O'Sullivan
- Louis Petrucci
- Patrick Phelan
- Christopher Stadler
- Lisa Truilizio
- Donald Van Every
- Edwin Williams