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Lancaster School District has tough sell to divided community

Two open seats on the School Board.

A nearly $100 million operating budget.

A capital project of $57.3 million for an artificial turf field, fieldhouse upgrades, a black box theater and an art gallery for the high school.

That would be plenty for voters to consider.

But in Lancaster, a mascot who is no longer the school district’s mascot is casting its shadow on the elections and votes.

In March, the School Board unanimously voted to immediately retire the Redskins mascot after deciding that it was insensitive to Native Americans – and that it was time for the district to move on. The move infuriated longtime supporters of what they called “the Redskins tradition,” who insisted the name was not meant to offend and was part of the fabric of Lancaster. Students marched through the village. Parents and supporters wearing shirts emblazoned with the phrase “Change it back” jammed board meetings.

Now, two Lancaster alums who were vocal in the fight to keep the Redskins name are trying to unseat two of the board members who are up for re-election. A fifth person is running on a platform that centers on the battle against high-stakes state testing, a hot-button issue throughout the region.

To be sure, all of the candidates highlighted testing in their platforms, which they described for The Buffalo News in an online survey, and several criticized state funding levels for school districts.

None mentioned the Redskins debate by name. But three candidates trying to unseat the two incumbents talked of a need for more transparency and better communication with the community – signaling discontent over how the board came to its decision.

Strong feelings over the mascot are expected to drive voters to the polling booth May 19, the date of the vote. Superintendent Michael J. Vallely is well aware that the mascot issue will play a role.

“I just don’t know how, yet,” he said.

However people vote, their decisions next week likely will mark a defining moment in the community.

“With the board race, the Lancaster community will be sending a message to Western New York and the nation on who we are, and what we believe in,” Vallely said.

Impact on the budget

For weeks, the administration and district leaders have talked up the budget – championing the merits of the 2015-16 spending plan that increases the tax levy by 1.83 percent, the lowest increase in the last five years. Spending would rise by 2.57 percent. Programs and staffing would remain intact.

“We’re hopeful the residents will come out and vote for the budget,” Vallely said.

There are some concerns that alums and parents angered by the board’s decision may try to vote down the budget. Education leaders in the region warned about the consequences of a protest vote.

“I wouldn’t want to see the basic operations of a school district held hostage at the beck and cry over an inanimate object, such as a mascot,” said Charles L. Stoddart, retired longtime Orchard Park school superintendent well-respected in education circles.

The mascot issue is so recent that Paul Hashem, a frequent interim superintendent in many districts and former Lackawanna superintendent, says it will be in the forefront of voters’ minds.

“The way it impacts is based on emotion,” he said.

Robert W. Christmann, a former Grand Island school superintendent, questioned whether anyone would benefit from voting down the budget.

“You may be successful at sending a message, but what’s the impact on your programs and students? So what have you accomplished?” said Christmann, who is also the executive director of the Western New York Educational Service Council at the University at Buffalo. Earlier this spring, the organization commended the Lancaster School Board for its courage in eliminating the Redskins nickname. The award led to a standing ovation among 400 educators.

At a candidate’s forum Monday night in Lancaster High School, Brenda J. Christopher, a former board member and outspoken supporter of the Redskins name, shot down speculation that the Redskins faction was encouraging people to vote down the budget.

“Any rumors that are flying around about why they’re being threatened is beyond me,” she said.

A second pro-Redskins candidate, Kelly Hughes Depczynski, said she needed more time to review the budget.

Should voters defeat the $99.94 million budget, Lancaster’s board could put the same spending plan back up for another community vote, or it could put a revised budget up for a vote. Or, the board could adopt a contingency budget in which the tax levy amount cannot increase over the current school year, likely leading to program cuts affecting children.

The capital project

Some say the capital project is more vulnerable.

The base project totals $49.6 million. An additional $7.7 million would be for the turf field and fieldhouse improvements only to be done if the Lancaster Educational and Alumni Foundation can raise $1 million in the next year to cover the local share of the cost of those two components.

The district said the project would not increase taxes, because state aid will cover 80 percent of the cost, and other debt will be paid off when it comes time to pay for the remaining 20 percent.

Vallely said the district’s buildings, some dating to the 1940s, are in desperate need of repair.

“This is what’s right for our children and our community,” he said. “I believe the vast majority of people will set the other things aside, and say what’s best for the children. ... If a mascot issue is going to derail that, then, wow, it’s a darn shame. But I’m going to be optimistic.”

Lancaster graduate Jerry Young, a partner of Young & Wright Architects that designed the capital project, acknowledged how the mascot issue has affected the plans. Some have wondered whether the project was a way to quietly get rid of Redskins images in buildings, such as those in the main high school gymnasium.

“That is not true,” Young said. “We were working on the planning of this project way before the board started talking about the mascot issue ... It sounds like there was this conspiracy, but it really wasn’t.”

Five fighting for two seats

Depczynski, an ardent supporter of the Redskins name, has a voicemail message on her home phone, telling callers: “You have reached the Depczynskis, home of the Lancaster Redskins.”

A recent Facebook posted quote telling people who don’t believe in the Redskins name to “stay outta Lancaster” elicited this response from Depczynski: “Damn Straight.”

Signs are plastered all over town for the five candidates.

Incumbents Wendy S. Buchert, who is part Cherokee and a parent, is running for her third term, and Kimberly Nowak, a parent of two students at Lancaster High, is running for her second term. They are aligned together in their re-election campaign and both took heat for their vote to end the Redskins mascot.

Challenging them are Depczynski and Christopher, both Lancaster alums who regularly attend board meetings wearing shirts that say “Change It Back!” across the back. Christopher has been outspoken on the mascot issue and helped bring two Native Americans from outside the Buffalo area to weigh in on the issue before the board made its decision.

The four addressed educational issues, such as testing and the Common Core, in candidate profiles they submitted to The News.

Buchert was critical of the state’s handling of state funding and teacher evaluations, and Nowak said there are too many unfunded state mandates.

Depczynski and Christopher listed their top concerns as issues with Common Core standards and state tests. While not mentioning the Redskins, they emphasized more transparency and better communication with the community.

The Lancaster Central Teachers’ Association, representing about 480 teachers, so far only endorsed one candidate – the one who has not been immersed in the mascot controversy – Wendy A. DellaNeve, a national certified pharmacy technician. DellaNeve was one of the first Lancaster mothers to opt her children out of state testing.

“Wendy (DellaNeve) is concerned with the current relevant educational issues, which impact our teachers, children and school system, as opposed to a mascot which is serving as a distraction,” said Eric Przykuta, union president.

DellaNeve said she wants greater transparency for the board and a return to fundamental learning in the classrooms.

“I believe in developmentally appropriate learning and testing for all children, and feel that education needs to be brought back to a local level,” she said. “The bottom line is that at the end of the day, it’s about these kiddos that they have the quality education they deserve.”

Lancaster school board, budget info

Candidates: (Elect 2) Wendy Buchert (i); Kimberly Nowak (i); Brenda Christopher; Wendy A. DellaNeve; and Kelly Depczynski.

Total budget: $99,940,118, s 2.57 percent

Tax levy (total amount to be raised through property taxes): $48,664,133, s 1.83 percent

Tax levy increase allowed under tax cap: 2.61 percent

Estimated property tax rate per $1,000 of assessed value: $16.97 in Lancaster, s 1.74 percent; $16.97 in Cheektowaga, s 1.74 percent; $361.34 in Elma, s 1.83 percent*

Estimated taxes on $100,000 home (market value): $1,697*

Proposition: Voters are being asked to approve a $57.31 million capital project that would address health and safety issues, and basic maintenance repairs and facility upgrades districtwide. The base project is $49.6 million, plus $7.7 million in athletic and music facility upgrades that would be carried out only if the Lancaster Educational and Alumni Foundation (LEAF) is successful in raising $1 million.

Proposition: Voters will be asked to approve a transportation proposal to replace eight, 65-passenger buses for $946,496. All buses would be paid for by money set aside in the district’s Bus Reserve Fund, resulting in no impact to taxpayers.

Polls open: 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. in main gym of Lancaster Central High School, 1 Forton Drive.

* Estimated tax rates are based on the total taxable value and equalization rate. Final tax rates are established in August.