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TAX GROUPS UNITING ON SCHOOL RACES

Taxpayer groups trying to win seats on school boards throughout Erie County are developing a uniform strategy that calls for targeting voters who don't have children in public schools, looking to the business community for financial support and publishing teacher salaries.

The strategy also calls for proposing alternative budgets to those proposed by school boards and attacking the statewide teachers union, the New York State United Teachers, as an "800-pound gorilla" with too much influence over statewide elections and education issues.

Tax groups say they are merely doing what other organizations -- including teachers unions -- have long done to help get the candidates of their choice elected.

"This is what it comes down to. It's the political nature of it," said Jack Beilman of Lancaster, who heads the Concerned Citizens of WNY, an umbrella taxpayer organization of 20 local groups, which developed the strategy paper.

"I've seen the teachers unions do it," Beilman said.

The president of the Williamsville Teachers Association agreed his union has been actively involved in board races and views the tax organizations as an opposing interest group.

"Basically, I would say they are using some of the basic tools or tactics that a group uses to sway public opinion," said union President Donald Holtz. "We are on opposite sides of the issue.

"We are for quality education. A pro-education school board. They (tax groups) think teachers are making too much money. I don't. They think we control the board," he said.

Still, some taxpayer-group opponents called the strategy document frightening and argued it is proof that the tax organizations are trying to destroy public education.

"This is pretty mean-spirited," said Linda Rosenblatt, spokeswoman for the state teachers union.

"What this says is they aren't interested in cutting taxes. They care
about the board races," Williamsville School Board President Anne Rohrer said of the strategy paper. "These are people who want to make major changes in the school system."

"A lot of this comes out of the Christian right," she added.

Taxpayer group members, who include both Christians and non-Christians, attacked Mrs. Rohrer's reference to the Christian coalition as false and a scare tactic.

"I'm almost speechless," said Martin Schechtman, who heads the Orchard Park taxpayers group. "As soon as someone says we need citizen control of school boards, and not ex-teachers and administrators, we get this reference to the right wing."

"I am Jewish," Ken Smith, a tax group member who also sits on the Williamsville School Board, said in response to Mrs. Rohrer's remarks. "Maybe she got confused because we are a citizens coalition."

Tax groups also reject claims that they are trying to ruin public education. Their goal, they say, is to improve education while cutting costs.

"I knowingly moved into a town that is supposed to have the best school system, which I believe helps maintain property values. So why would I try to decrease them by destroying the schools?" asked Marianna Sontag, with the East Amherst Taxpayers Association.

The 12-page strategy paper developed by the tax groups notes that 77 percent of households do not have children in public schools and suggests that tax organizations target this group to vote in the May 19 School Board elections.

Why only households without public school children?

"When I started, I talked to all kinds of citizens," said Schechtman. "I talked to one parent teacher association. One woman said, I don't care what it costs. It's my child in the school, and I don't want to hear anything about anything that reduces costs for schools."

The paper suggests identifying companies that pay the most property taxes in a community, then targeting them and other companies to help raise funds to finance school board candidates.

To build support, the paper suggests taxpayer group members should participate in radio call-in shows and also educate the public on teacher salaries.

School contracts should be placed in libraries, and the salaries of school employees should be obtained through Freedom of Information requests, then publicized.

The paper also suggests taxpayer candidates propose an alternative budget to the one being offered by the school board in their district and to petition to have the alternative budget on the May 19 ballot.

Overall, the taxpayers say, their strategies are similar to those used by teachers unions, which work on behalf of candidates they support.

In the Williamsville district, for example, the teachers union endorses candidates. Some of the money the union collects from its members for political lobbying -- union dues are not used for political activities -- is used to send mailings to about 2,500 state teachers union members who live in the district and to operate a phone bank, urging voters to support the candidates the teachers union endorses.

The union has also, in the past, used the money to push for budget passage.

Concerned Citizens of WNY developed the strategy paper as an internal document. The paper was intended as a guide for groups running candidates, or for candidates themselves, to use in anticipation of the May elections, Beilman said.

The paper was not intended for public dissemination. But the organization released the document after realizing that copies had been distributed to the Williamsville Board of Education.

Mrs. Rohrer said she was given a copy of the document by an acquaintance on another school board. As is standard Williamsville practice, she said, she shared the document with the rest of the School Board.

"It doesn't show they care about children," Mrs. Rohrer said of the document. "It never mentions children."

"I was struck by how little of the dialogue from taxpayers is about anything to do with the quality of education with children," said Vanessa Hartman, who ran unsuccessfully for the Orchard Park School Board last year against a taxpayer candidate. "Children and education never come up. It's always taxes, taxes, taxes."

Beilman responded by reading from his organization's mission statement, which says, in part: "We are for good schools, safe for our children and free of drugs. We are for much better preparation of our children for their future."

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