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Tumult in Williamsville district leads to call for unity, healing

When seven candidates for the Williamsville Board of Education gathered recently to debate education issues, talk was as much about healing the school district as it was about addressing parent concerns such as recess and standardized tests.

Candidates talked about “unifying the district,” “healing and improving relationships” and not having time for “arguments in the future.”

A deep divide between the School Board and the district’s teachers has produced one of the liveliest school elections in the Williamsville district in years. In two of out of the last three years, all candidates ran unopposed in the district accustomed to being highlighted for its academics. This year, there are seven candidates for three seats, and a wide range of opinions on how to maintain the district’s coveted top status in student performance measures.

And while there is little controversy over the district’s $178 million budget proposal, a plan to add turf, lights and concession stands at high school athletic fields has brought concerns from neighbors who felt they were left out of the early planning process.

On Tuesday, residents will decide how the district moves forward. They will select a third of the nine-member board. They will determine whether the district is taking the right course by restoring some budget cuts made in recent years, and they will choose whether the district will spend $50 million on school renovations and athletic field upgrades.

This all means a far different school election in Williamsville than residents have seen in recent years.

“When I ran for School Board back in 2008, actually, it was good times in Williamsville public schools. I don’t think there were any issues and problems that were large,” said Mark Mecca, a school psychologist in the Buffalo Public Schools running for one of the three seats. “… I couldn’t imagine a scenario where 350 parents, students and teachers would be outside of a board meeting protesting.”

Teachers have favorite

The protest, held by the Williamsville Teachers Association outside a School Board meeting in April, came after the teachers union held votes of “no confidence” in the School Board and Superintendent Scott G. Martzloff. The rift between the teachers union and the board blew open in the fall, after the board rejected a request to bring in an outside investigator to probe employee complaints about the superintendent. But the lingering concerns expressed by the teachers union touch on everything from controversial votes taken late at night to the board’s policy not to respond to public comments at meetings.

“Our message really has been the same all along,” said Williamsville Teachers Association President Michelle Licht. “We need the board to be accountable to the community. We need the board to listen to the people. We need them to be honest and to be transparent.”

The teachers association has thrown its support behind only one incumbent, Toni Vazquez, a medical practice administrator and small-business owner who was the lone board member to support the call from principal and teacher unions for an independent investigation into employee complaints of Martzloff. The union, which has sent out mailers and produced palm cards for its endorsed candidates, is also campaigning for Mecca and Shawn Lemay, a Williamsville small-business owner.

‘There’s a clear choice’

Two other incumbents, Jay Smith and Michael Littman, have emphasized their experience on the board, while two candidates, Sam Alba and Robert Campo, have presented themselves as independent voices focused on unifying district leaders.

“To me, there’s a clear choice for this year’s election,” said Smith, a regional manager for Rural/Metro Medical Services who is running for his second term on the School Board. “For me, it’s families and students first. Williamsville’s such a good school district, we have so many stakeholders and there is a lot at stake. People have passionate opinions, but the board, I think, acts responsibly.”

While he acknowledges that the board could take steps to reduce the number of votes it takes late at night, Smith points to the district’s academic success and its fiscal stability as evidence that it is headed in the right direction. So does Littman, an associate professor and chairman at SUNY Buffalo State who has served nine years on the Williamsville School Board.

“When you start saying there are problems and the district is having issues and you say it long and loud enough, people will start thinking that that’s the case,” said Littman, a former school board president. “To me, the reality, looking at the day-to-day of it, at least at the board level, the district runs smoothly economically and it seems to run OK academically.”

Littman acknowledges that communication between district leaders could improve and has floated a plan to revive annual visits between board members and staff at the district’s 13 schools.

Communication among district leaders was a key point touched on by nearly all of the candidates during a forum at the district offices earlier this month.

“Right now, we need to push back against strict state mandates and strict state testing, and we can’t do that unless we’re unified,” said Alba, an attorney running for the first time who said he worries about whether his daughter will have recess in kindergarten when she starts school. “Williamsville schools don’t have time for a rift. We don’t have time to deal with the local issues first. We need to unite right away.”

Need to communicate

Robert Campo, a college instructor and attorney, wants to see two-way communication between the School Board and the public, more transparency in board decisions and an end to board votes taken after 9 p.m., among other changes. Campo, who has been an active volunteer in the district, was the force behind collecting signatures last year asking the towns of Amherst and Clarence to work out a deal to add crossing guards at Transit Middle School.

“We need newly elected officials that bring people together,” Campo said. “My constituency are the parents, the children and the taxpayers.”

Vazquez, the incumbent, said she wants the School Board to end its policy of not responding to resident concerns and questions during the public comment periods at meetings.

“I think that most of us are very responsible and respectful adults, so I think a two-way dialogue is in the best interest of hearing what people think and getting an answer to their questions,” Vazquez said.

Lemay said he, too, believes that the board needs to provide clearer responses to community concerns. The rift among district stakeholders, as well as education initiatives sent down from Albany on testing and teacher evaluations, prompted Lemay to run.

“Parent complaints were going unanswered,” Lemay said. “The rift between the board, the staff and our community was growing. So my plan, should I be elected, starts with the board nine, healing and improving relationships with all, the administration, the teachers, the parents, the community.”

Athletic lights at issue

While communication between the School Board, the superintendent and district unions has overshadowed the election, it is not the only controversial issue that will be before voters Tuesday. Residents will also consider three ballot questions for construction projects totaling $50 million, including a $22.4 million proposal to add artificial turf athletic fields at each of the district’s three high schools and a $4.6 million proposal to add outdoor restrooms at all three athletic sites, as well as lights and concession stands at East and North high schools.

The district had a task force of coaches, parents and other community members help plan the athletic field proposal, but did not invite neighbors to participate in that early planning process.

Residents who live near East and North high schools have expressed concern about the scale and impact of tall athletic field lights on the neighborhoods, as well as the extended play hours that would come with lighting the fields and opening them to community groups. While the district has since made some modifications to the its athletic field proposal at East in response to resident concerns, the neighbors want to see the dialogue continue if the plan to add lights is approved by voters.

They hope the district ultimately decides the lights are unnecessary.

“We’re not against the whole project for the school,” said John Girard, one of several residents who have met with district officials. “It’s just we don’t see the need for evenings and lights and weekends. We’re losing our privacy in our backyards.”