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HERNANDEZ ON A MISSION FOR CITY'S PUBLIC SCHOOLS

Ralph Hernandez has been a member of the Buffalo Board of Education for just a few weeks, but he's already at center stage.

At the first full business meeting of the new board, Hernandez circulated a five-page proposal seeking a three-year moratorium on district-sponsored charter schools, an initiative that is central to the board's reform effort.

Critics of Hernandez, the first Hispanic ever elected to the board, charge that he is out to torpedo charter schools and that he's doing the bidding of the Buffalo Teachers Federation, which aided his election campaign.

Hernandez insists that he has not made up his mind about charter schools, but that they need to be examined more closely. He said he will reach his conclusions independently, based on what he learns.

"I'm very grateful for the support I got from the unions, but I'm in no way indebted to the unions," he said. "I don't see myself taking marching orders from anyone. I'm not that type of person."

In addition to being the board's first Hispanic member, Hernandez is unconventional in several respects:

He's tackling his first term in public office at age 54, and assuming board responsibilities after his three sons are already grown or in college. Most board candidates seek office when their children are still in school.

His write-in campaign in the city's West District was launched just nine days before the May 4 election, after the two candidates seeking ballot positions had their nominating petitions rejected.

Hernandez learned the importance of a college education the tough way -- by doing without one for much of his adult life and scraping by as an encyclopedia salesman, a taxi driver and by playing in a family band.

Hernandez said he will represent children and families throughout the city, but feels a special affinity to Buffalo's Hispanic community and to the underdog.

"I know the true value of an education," said Hernandez, who was born in Puerto Rico and was raised in Spanish Harlem before moving to Buffalo with his family at age 16. "I know first-hand how difficult it is not to have it. For me, money just wasn't there."

He hopes Buffalo and its schools can offer the same opportunity and safe haven his family found when it moved here to avoid the dangers of New York City.

"My dad was concerned with the drugs," Hernandez said. "There were folks doing heroin right in the hallway."

Hernandez, a graduate of Grover Cleveland High School, was a Marine Corps sergeant who saw extensive combat duty in Vietnam until a booby trap blew him into a tree and broke his shoulder.

He started college in 1986 and chipped away -- course by course -- until receiving his master's degree earlier this year from D'Youville College. For the past year, he has been an investigator for the state Division of Human Rights.

Hispanics previously gained election to the Buffalo Common Council and the local judiciary, but never to the Board of Education.

When he was sworn in July 1 at City Hall, Hernandez -- an unsuccessful board candidate in both 1998 and 1999 -- received a standing ovation from more than 100 members of Buffalo's Hispanic community.

"Our children -- the poorest in the nation to begin with -- need a voice," said Andres Garcia, vice president for community and government relations at Kaleida Health, and the manager of Hernandez's whirlwind campaign. "We're at a turning point -- we're either going to make it with our children or not."

The nine-day campaign netted 308 votes, the highest among five vote-getters.

"The Latino community came out strong," Hernandez said. "That's why I won. We made a decision to hold our own, and I'm very proud of that."

e-mail: psimon@buffnews.com

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