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‘Wing King,’ developer become peacemakers in Clarence school budget battle

The cooling of heads in Clarence’s heated school budget battle began during a chance meeting at a coffee shop.

Drew Cerza, the National Buffalo Wing Festival founder known to many as the “Wing King” and an ardent supporter of the school budget, heard a few men chatting about taxes and decided to join them.

He soon realized that he was sitting face to face with the anti-tax people who had just succeeded in getting the controversial plan voted down.

“These are two groups that hated each other, despised each other,” Cerza said.

But Cerza and developer Paul S. Stephen, who paid for some controversial anti-budget signs, were surprised by what happened next.

“Guess what we found out?” Cerza said. “We were really fighting for our kids and fighting to keep the Clarence school system the best in Western New York. We were really fighting for the same thing; we just have different ideas on how to get there.”

Both sides – those who either opposed or supported the 9.8 percent tax hike – agreed Wednesday to officially put their differences aside.

They held a news conference to announce that they had called off the fight and even posed for a photo of what they dubbed a “Kumbaya moment” – the two sides holding hands in front of a new billboard that urges cooperation going forward.

The groups are joining forces in an all-out campaign to get the revised budget passed on Tuesday and to press the state for more permanent change.

“That will accomplish more than throwing barbs and slinging mud at each other,” said Brendan D. Biddlecom, a parent who supported the initial budget.

The revised budget is far from what either side wants. Parents say it cuts too many programs, while others complain that it fails to address mounting payroll expenses that have hobbled the schools.

But the alternative – a bare-bones contingency budget that would be adopted if the second budget is voted down – is something neither side wants to live with, either.

“It really would be an Armaggedon situation,” Biddlecom said.

Cerza said both groups had come to the realization that the budget battle had begun to take on a life of its own, with tempers boiling over at every public meeting since the vote.

Websites designed by both groups and nasty Facebook messages and blogs had begun to circulate throughout the community, worsening the situation, he said.

“It was the start of a community divide that we’ve never seen in Clarence,” Cerza said. “Things got ugly, and it was something no one expected.”

So the groups decided to “put aside the things we’re never going to agree on and focus on the things we can,” Biddlecom said.

“We can either work toward fixing our problems or drive a permanent wedge through the community.”

Besides the revised budget, the new coalition is urging creative ways to restore some of the programs that have been cut from the schools.

Biddlecom said that perhaps money could be raised to fund some of the modified sports programs that have been cut.

Stephen recommended that the business community step up and help teach courses or provide internships for students at the high school.

Perhaps the district could lobby for the right to sell advertisements or create naming rights for the high school football field, others suggested.

“There are a lot of businesspeople,” Stephen said, “who would volunteer to help out.”

But the long-term goal centers on pension reform, relief from mandates and other major problems that districts have been griping about for years.

Lisa A. Thrun of Citizens for Sustainable Schools said her group is encouraged by recent comments from the teachers union president suggesting they are open to some sort of long-term reform.

Biddlecom added that the entire budget discussion has riled up both sides but also gotten them involved in the community like never before.

“We need to roll up our sleeves and get programs reinstated and increase transparency in our schools and our community,” he said.

Cerza, meanwhile, said that other communities should take a look at what is happening in Clarence and get organized before the next budget crisis hits.

“We’re the first community to go through this, but it’s not like somebody’s not next,” Cerza said. “Because the system’s not working for anyone going forward.”