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Voters to decide future of city schools in ‘pivotal’ elections for 6 board seats

The fate of the new school superintendent’s reform plans, residency for teachers, a return to neighborhood schools and approval of more charter schools will essentially be on the ballot in Buffalo on May 7.

That’s when voters pick six members of the Board of Education in elections that could reshape education in the city.

After Tuesday’s filing deadline to make the ballot, contests that typically draw about 5 percent of voters could attract added attention this year because of high-profile candidates who include a former Republican gubernatorial nominee and the head of the state-appointed financial control board for Erie County.

“I think it’s the most pivotal election since I’ve been able to vote on School Board elections,” said Samuel L. Radford III, president of the District Parent Coordinating Council. “We are at a crossroads to either go forward and become a great school district or stay on the path we’ve been on and be a perpetually failing school district.”

After the votes are counted and the victory balloons are popped next month, the new School Board will face several critical challenges.

For one, the new board’s composition could determine whether Superintendent Pamela C. Brown continues to get the support she currently has from a majority of members as she shakes up the central office.

Ballots will be cast in a school district that has had chronically low test scores and perennially low graduation rates, but also amid raised hopes that Say Yes to Education – which makes it possible for every graduating senior to attend college or a vocational school – will usher in a cultural shift in post-high school expectations. The program has drawn the unified support of the philanthropic community, the school district, the parent council and the Buffalo Teachers Federation.

The six district seats on the nine-member board are being contested; Park District representative Louis J. Petrucci is the only incumbent among the six not seeking re-election.

“This election is different because we haven’t had this much interest in a long time,” Petrucci said.

The main issues in this year’s elections are:

Turning around persistently underperforming schools – Twenty-eight were classified in 2012-13 as “priority” schools, ranked among the 5 percent of the lowest-performing schools in the state.

Neighborhood schools – Many say it’s time to return to the approach. Supporters say a lack of private transportation among many Buffalo residents results in students being absent from school if they miss the bus, prevents after-school participation and makes it difficult for parents to get involved and attend parent-teacher conferences.

A new BTF contract – There hasn’t been a teachers contract in almost nine years. While the administration is responsible for negotiating a new contract, the board can set the tone to get it done.

Charter schools – The School Board is one of three entities that can grant charter schools – along with the state Board of Regents and the State University of New York – but hasn’t in years. Changes on the board could open the door to new charters being authorized, as well as longer renewals that are granted by the Board of Regents – or the board could continue to hold the line. A new board also could choose to lease school buildings closed by the district for use by charter schools.

Teacher residency – The School Board eliminated the longtime requirement that teachers live in the city on a split vote and had the support of the BTF. But many in the community, including the parents group and the Common Council, want a return to the Buffalo residency requirement.

“The most pressing issue is the 44 persistently low-achieving schools in the City of Buffalo,” said Hannya Boulos, executive director of Buffalo ReformED, a nonprofit education reform advocacy organization. “I think having the board really set a comprehensive turnaround plan for those schools is an immediate focus, and I think the way it’s been done has been a very jumbled approach, without comprehensive community engagement.”

Will a lot of voters turn out? In 2010, just 4.9 percent of eligible voters did, with only 351 votes cast in the Park District, for instance. In 2007, that number was 5.6 percent.

Here are the candidates who turned in petitions Tuesday to run for three-year terms and are assumed to have the 500 signatures needed to get on the ballot:

Central District – Incumbent, Mary Ruth Kapsiak, current board president and a retired Buffalo Public Schools administrator; she received support from the BTF and the Buffalo Niagara Partnership three years ago.

Challengers, Bryon J. McIntyre, retired Buffalo firefighter and vice president of the District Parent Coordinating Council, who has run twice before, and Joseph A. Mascia, commissioner of the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority, who has also sought political office before.

East District – Incumbent, Rosalyn L. Taylor, retired Buffalo Public Schools district administrator who was appointed to her seat and is mounting her first campaign.

Challenger, Theresa A. Harris-Tigg, assistant professor of English at SUNY Buffalo State, who applied for one of the board vacancies in the last couple of years.

Ferry District – Incumbent, Sharon M. Belton-Cottman, who works in the mortgage industry; she was appointed to her seat and is running her first campaign. She has no challengers.

North District – Incumbent, Jason M. McCarthy, a bartender, who received support from Education Reform Now, a downstate advocacy group, three years ago.

Challengers, Wendy S. Mistretta, a former Buffalo State College administrator and an active parent at International School 45 and the District Parent Coordinating Council, and Susan L. Gillick, a retired school administrator, who is supported by Citizen Action.

Park District – Petrucci is not running for re-election.

Challengers, Carl P. Paladino, major Buffalo developer and the GOP gubernatorial candidate in 2010, and Adrian F. Harris, teacher’s aide in the Lancaster schools.

West District – Incumbent, Ralph R. Hernandez, current board vice president.

Challenger, James M. Sampson, chairman of the county control board and president of the board of Buffalo ReformED, a pro-charter school group.

All but one of the candidates handed their petitions in at the Board of Elections. Mistretta, in the North District, mailed in her petitions by the deadline.