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3 weeks before vote for School Board, blocs assert power

Buffalo voters on May 7 will elect two-thirds of the Board of Education members who will largely determine the future of the city’s schools – serving more than 30,000 students – and the $900 million budget that funds them.

But before voters get to decide, several interest groups have already sent money and foot soldiers to ensure that the candidates they support will fill the seats around the board table in City Hall.

And in the next three weeks, those forces – from here to Albany and New York City – will continue to devote even more resources to an election that many say is likely to break the ho-hum mold of school elections in Buffalo.

Although candidates for the School Board do not run on party lines, and the elections are held in May to separate them from the political contests in November, the local political parties are nevertheless significant forces – along with several other power blocs in the region.

That raises questions among some education advocates.

People who run for School Board seats should be “pure of heart,” said Vincent J. Coppola, a consultant with the Western New York Educational Service Council, a nonprofit organization affiliated with the University at Buffalo.

“They should be people who do not have any other agenda other than seeing that the children in this city are going to get a good education,” he said. “They should be people who will hold other people accountable.

“When you’ve got these power blocs pushing for this person or that person, where are they coming from?”

This year’s School Board elections in Buffalo will in some ways be much like those of years past.

The local teachers union will supply money and volunteers to support a slate composed primarily of incumbents. Business leaders will donate hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars to candidates they see as like-minded. A number of individual City Hall staff members will support one person or another. And key players in the city’s dominant Democratic Party will back certain candidates.

But in other ways, this year will be markedly unlike any other.

Members of the City of Buffalo Republican Committee have circulated petitions for some candidates.

The statewide teachers union and its affiliated groups have ramped up their efforts and brought in people from Rochester and New York City to collect signatures for several candidates – and plan to send hundreds of volunteers door to door over the next few weeks to get out the vote.

And several leaders of the district’s officially sanctioned parents group have mobilized behind at least one candidate.

In an ideal world, candidates would be able to separate the support they receive during a campaign from the decisions they make once they’re elected, Coppola said.

“The more independent you are, the better it is for you to be objective and not be beholden to any group,” he said.

But that can run counter to the realities of the campaign process.

“I understand that,” said Coppola, a former suburban school superintendent. “All I’m saying is that there’s something wrong with the system.”

BTF has considerable clout

Historically, the group most consistently active in Buffalo’s School Board elections has been the Buffalo Teachers Federation, which spends thousands of dollars and devotes countless volunteer hours to support candidates in each contest.

BTF President Philip Rumore said in an interview last week that his union has not yet interviewed or endorsed any School Board candidates. The union has not provided any direct help to anyone, he said.

Campaign financial disclosure reports filed in City Hall, though, show that the BTF’s political action committee on March 12 gave $1,000 to incumbent Ralph R. Hernandez in the West District.

The union’s PAC also gave $500 to incumbent Mary Ruth Kapsiak in the Central District on March 25.

New York State United Teachers, the BTF’s parent group in Albany, has sent letters to its 10,000 members in Buffalo, urging them to vote for two newcomers: Adrian F. Harris, who is running against Carl P. Paladino in South Buffalo’s Park District, and Susan L. Gillick, a retired school administrator and psychologist who is running in the North District.

The union’s letter also urges support for four incumbents: Hernandez, Kapsiak, Rosalyn Taylor in the East District and Sharon Belton-Cottman in the Ferry District.

“There has never been a better time to be a student in the Buffalo Public Schools,” the letter begins. “The 59 schools we have left have all been reconstructed into state of the art centers for education. Great learning and teaching is happening in all of these schools.”

Paladino is self-financing

NYSUT and groups it is closely affiliated with – Citizen Action, the Alliance for Quality Education and the Working Families Party – have provided people from Buffalo, Rochester and New York City to collect signatures to get its six favored candidates on the ballot. NYSUT plans to send 300 volunteers door to door every weekend until the May 7 elections to drum up support for those six people, according to Michael K. Deely, NYSUT’s regional director in Western New York.

While the union is active in every School Board election in Buffalo, this year merits particular attention, he said.

“Obviously, when Carl Paladino says he wants to be on the School Board, it gets us very, very interested. We’ll give him the credit for raising the stakes in this race,” Deely said. “He’s literally a landlord for charter schools. He’s part of a millionaire class that wants to beat up on teachers and close public schools.”

Paladino is a candidate unlike any other. With real estate holdings in the hundreds of millions of dollars, the chairman of Ellicott Development does not need the support of outside groups. In fact, a flier for a campaign rally he’s holding later this week declares: “No donations will be accepted.”

Under state law, there’s no limit to how much an individual can contribute to a School Board campaign. Paladino has already spent $10,000 of his own money, and there’s no telling how much more he will spend. In response to a question from The Buffalo News regarding how much he plans to spend on his race, he responded in writing, “NOYB” – none of your business.

Paladino also has what no amount of money can buy: the name recognition that comes with being the Republican gubernatorial nominee in 2010 and for many years one of the region’s most prominent developers.

He did get some help from some members of the city’s Republican Party to collect signatures, though, according to the names on his nominating petitions filed with the Erie County Board of Elections.

William E. Nowakowski, chairman of the city’s GOP, said that some of his committee members have assisted in School Board campaigns this year, not as part of any official work by the party, but as citizens concerned about education in the city. Nowakowski said the Republicans have gotten involved in previous School Board races in Buffalo, but several people familiar with the city’s school elections disputed that contention.

Nowakowski declined to say which candidates received help.

“It’s a volunteer thing,” he said. “We’re doing it because we think these are people who can make a difference. We’re not doing it as a party thing.”

He added that he didn’t want Republican assistance to candidates to be overstated or to “tar” any campaign.

“These are some people who came to us and asked for some help,” Nowakowski said. “We didn’t pick or run these people. We have nothing to do with who decided to run or when.”

At least one candidate, however – incumbent Jason M. McCarthy in the North District – said the Republicans approached him, offering to gather signatures. He said he declined their offer because he wants to be an independent voice on the board.

GOP assisting Sampson

The candidate who has most benefited from Republican help is James M. Sampson, president and CEO of Gateway-Longview, a child services agency. Several members of the party’s committee in Buffalo gathered signatures for him, according to the petitions he filed with the Board of Elections.

Sampson is also receiving significant support from the local business community. As of early April, he had raised only $2,600 – most of it from local businesspeople – but that seems likely to be just the beginning.

The Buffalo Niagara Partnership has not yet made its endorsements, but its president, Andrew J. Rudnick, called Sampson “the poster child” of what the organization is looking for in a candidate. Sampson, president of the board at Buffalo ReformED, is also a former member of the Partnership board and chairman of the state-appointed financial control board for the county.

Four years ago, the Partnership spent $26,000 on behalf of three candidates.

Rudnick said his business-member organization this year is prepared to invest money to support candidates who are not only interested in education reform, but have viable campaign support.

“We are looking to see if there are other Jim Sampsons out there,” he said.

McCarthy, the only incumbent whom Paladino says he supports, has already raised more than $16,000, much of it from local businesspeople, according to the financial disclosure statement he filed.

Among McCarthy’s top contributors, each of whom gave him $1,000, are: Howard A. Zemsky, managing partner of Larkin Development; Brett J. Fitzpatrick, owner of Somerset Development; and Gary M. Godshaw, an adviser at Goldman, Sachs & Co. in New York City.

Parents from group active

Several weeks ago, leaders of the District Parent Coordinating Council interviewed candidates to see which of them had a platform in line with the parent group’s agenda, which includes a return to neighborhood schools and reinstatement of the teacher residency requirement.

As a result, the parent leaders determined they would likely support Sampson; Theresa Harris-Tigg, a SUNY Buffalo State assistant professor running in the East District; Bryon J. McIntyre, vice president of the parent group, who is running in the Central District; and Wendy S. Mistretta, parliamentarian of the parent group, who is running in the North District.

Exactly what form their support will take remains to be seen. The School Board – outraged that the parent group the board officially recognizes was backing candidates to unseat several members – sought legal counsel, which said the parent group could not endorse candidates.

Since then, leaders of the parent group have been careful to say that the group itself is not endorsing any candidates.

So far, Mistretta seems to have benefited the most from help from members of the District Parent Coordinating Council, according to nominating petitions on file with the county. Several group members, including Secretary Kim Walek and Vice President Jessica Bauer Walker, pounded the pavement to collect signatures for Mistretta, who has been a vocal advocate for immigrant and refugee students.

“For me, it’s just personal civil engagement,” Walek said of her support for Mistretta. “I think it’s always important to have a wide variety of people presenting their concerns.”

Find a list of the first financial disclosure statements here.

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