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Districts hoping voter army marches on stomach

If it’s barbecued chicken you’re after Tuesday, you have plenty of options, and most of them are in schools.

It used to be residents going to vote on school budgets could count on seeing artwork from schoolchildren and possibly a concert that evening, but the bar has been raised.

In recent years, many districts, including Grand Island, Lake Shore and Starpoint, have had school groups sponsoring chicken barbecue dinners. Hamburg has a hot dog sale during the day.

Maryvale’s Parent Teacher Organization has taken it a notch higher, with “Pork, Plants, Poultry and Polls” from 2 to 6 p.m. at the Maryvale school campus. That’s a rack of ribs, chicken or mac and cheese dinner, combined with a plant sale and, of course, voting. Proceeds will go to the PTOs at all four school buildings.

“We’re hoping it works out well for them,” said Assistant Superintendent James M. Maloney. “We’re also hoping it brings more of a vote in. School districts are always worried about complacency.”

Across town in Cheektowaga, Sloan voters may come across the most interesting offering: Nickel City Reptiles and Exotics is putting on two shows, at 4:30 p.m. and 5:15 p.m., at John F. Kennedy Middle School gym, in addition to a book fair, art show and hot dog roast.

“It’s awesome. We’ve done it for a couple years now,” Superintendent Andrea L. Galenski said of the exotic animal show. “It’s sponsored by the teachers association.”

Some might say the efforts to entertain, raise money and show off student work are a way to increase the turnout of parent voters, who are likely to support proposed budgets. But administrators say programs are put on because there are so many people coming into the schools.

“I would hope they would come to vote because it’s their civic duty and responsibility,” Lake Shore Superintendent James E. Przepasniak said, adding that the barbecue is an opportunity for the band to do its biggest fundraiser.

Robert W. Christmann, executive director the Western New York Educational Services Council and former Grand Island superintendent, said art shows and music give residents a chance to see what their tax dollars are producing.

“If you were coming in not connected, you don’t have a child, you don’t have a grandchild in the school, you might want to just stop for a few minutes and listen to the students putting on a concert,” he said. “For many residents it’s the only time they’re in the school.”

But could the scrumptious aroma of the chicken barbecue influence residents to vote for the budget and incumbents?

That’s what one candidate for a Greene County school board said had happened in 1996, and he filed a complaint with the state education commissioner.

Ronald V. Santicola contended “that the wafting of tempting aromas from the barbecue induced voters to believe that supporting the budget propositions and re-electing” the incumbent “would be as pleasant as savoring the delights of the barbecued chicken,” according to the commissioner. And the unsuccessful candidate for the Hunter-Tannersville School Board said sending notices about the barbecue home with students and posting signs in the district was electioneering, which is prohibited.

His complaint was dismissed.

“Other than the alleged smell of the chicken, petitioner offers no proof” that the School Board allowed electioneering to take place, the commissioner said in his decision. “The holding of the barbecue at the same time as the election, even if the grill is within 100 feet of the voting booth, does not constitute electioneering in and of itself.”

That’s good news for districts and school groups that raise money from chicken dinners, like the band boosters at Lake Shore, who expect to sell 1,000 or more chicken dinners like they have for years. The well-known Chiavetta’s Catering, which is located in the district, has barbecued the chicken for many years.

“It’s just a chicken dinner. Chiavetta’s is right in the district,” Przepasniak said. “People could say it’s connected, but in reality, it isn’t.”

In typical small-town fashion, this year one of the two candidates who are running unopposed for the board is Kathleen Chiavetta, a member of the family that owns the chicken barbecue business.

Back in Sloan, there’s also a hot dog roast, district book show, art show and music festival in addition to the animal show.

“It’s like a family, community event,” Galenski said. “It’s become a community – almost a family-type – environment.”

Galenski said the district knows parents are going to be coming in to vote, and the district offers the events to welcome parents and the community. “It’s a good time when you know, hopefully, they’ll be coming out to vote,” she said, “not to sway them in any way, this has nothing to do with that. It’s been a really nice community event.”