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Teachers’ influence is felt as Western New York school boards shift

Robert Campo heard about everything from turf athletic fields to standardized tests on the campaign trail in his quest to get a seat on the Williamsville Board of Education.

But the hottest issue was the school district’s teachers association.

“A third of the people are totally pro-union. A third of the people are totally anti-union, and a third of the people still have an open mind,” Campo said as he handed out pamphlets that emphasized his independence before the May 19 election. “I can’t figure out whether that even puts me in the running.”

It didn’t. Campo came in last of seven candidates with 1,657 votes – enough in a typical year to gain a seat on the Williamsville board. But this year, with the Williamsville Teachers Association actively campaigning for three candidates and a controversial construction referendum on the ballot, turnout swelled; 6,227 people cast ballots – more than twice the number of voters who came out last year.

The Williamsville teachers saw success. The three candidates endorsed by the teachers association swept the field, pushing out two incumbents.

Teachers in other districts saw victories, too. An Orchard Park resident who teaches in Buffalo will replace an incumbent on the Orchard Park School Board after receiving the endorsement of the Orchard Park Teachers Association. An information technology specialist in Kenmore ousted a member of the Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda School Board with the help of Ken-Ton teachers. In Grand Island, two newcomers endorsed by teachers won seats on the board.

Teachers have been making endorsements and campaigning for their candidates in school elections for years. But this year, with big changes in the classroom coming down from Albany and school districts dealing with local issues, several local teacher associations stepped up their efforts to support certain candidates.

That left some voters questioning how board members who are teachers or who are heavily supported by teachers unions will approach controversial issues that directly affect their profession.

“I’m pro-teacher. Nobody’s more important, aside from parents, than teachers. I can see the advantage of teachers being on the Board of Education in terms of them understanding what it’s like in the classroom,” said Bob Bickel, an Orchard Park voter who retired as an associate superintendent in the school district. “But there comes a point in every district where you have to negotiate with the local union. I don’t know how people who are currently teachers or who are retired teachers are going to confront those issues.”

Richard D’Agostino heard similar questions as he campaigned for a seat on the Grand Island School Board this year. One of seven candidates who ran for three seats, D’Agostino works as a teacher in Buffalo and is a chairman of one of its committees on special education. While he was endorsed by the Grand Island Teachers Association, he believes that his own campaigning efforts were a bigger factor in his victory.

“I take offense to all of the people who made an issue of teachers running and the union,” D’Agostino said. “We ran because we care about our kids. The direction the state is going in is wrong.”

Like in other communities, the teachers’ endorsement didn’t guarantee a victory in Grand Island. Only two of the three candidates supported by the teachers won, while incumbent Glenn Bobeck, an attorney, held on to his seat.

Teachers have one of the most powerful unions in the state. New York State United Teachers, a federation of more than 1,200 local unions, has considerable clout in Albany and encourages its members to get politically involved in local communities. But it leaves how that is done up to the local unions.

“NYSUT did no more this year than it has traditionally done,” said Carl Korn, a spokesman for NYSUT. “Frankly, in part because of what’s been happening in Albany, our efforts have also been focused on the state level.”

The statewide union did not run ads, as it has done in the past, asking voters to support school budgets, Korn said. While the statewide organization does provide contact information for NYSUT members and access to phone banks to local unions, Korn said local unions decide how much support to put into a local school board election.

Teachers in the Williamsville district played a large role in getting their three endorsed candidates elected. Upset about how most of the current Williamsville School Board members had handled a request from the district’s unions to investigate the superintendent, the Williamsville Teachers Association actively campaigned to push two incumbents off the board.

The union sent letters to its members. Teachers handed out palm cards at the polls and submitted questions during a candidate forum. They also got the help of the Buffalo Teachers Federation, which sent a letter to its members who live in the Williamsville district.

“As you probably already know, they have been attempting to deal with a challenging School Board. (Does that sound familiar?),” wrote BTF President Philip Rumore and BTF Political Action Committee Chairwoman Edith LeWin. “The WTA is trying to address the situation by electing three candidates who they believe will be honest, have integrity and will be transparent in their decision-making.”

Rumore said the union sends letters in support of candidates in suburban districts at the request of other local unions.

“We’ve been doing that for years,” Rumore said.

Williamsville Teachers Association President Michelle Licht said the union shifted its resources this year to focusing on the candidates. Typically, the union prints signs urging voters to support the district’s budget. This year, the signs listed the names of candidates the union endorsed.

But, Licht said, teachers alone did not propel the candidates to a win.

“We don’t have enough members to get people elected without the support of the community,” Licht said. “I think a lot of parents realized that if the teachers were concerned, then maybe they should be concerned, as well.”

Campo, a Williamsville candidate who did not receive the teachers’ endorsement, called the union’s campaign efforts a “deciding factor” in the election. “We’ve elected, now, three candidates this time who are so strongly affiliated with the union, and owe their entire election to the union that it’s now to the taxpayer’s detriment,” Campo said.

Licht bristled at suggestions that the teachers association was trying to control the board. Five out of the 9 current members, she said, received the union’s endorsement in the past.

“I think that what’s happening on the national level has made a lot of teachers and teachers unions realize they have to get involved in politics,” she said.

In Orchard Park, School Board member Donna Omar, a small-business owner, said she felt that a letter sent by the Orchard Park Teachers Association supporting its endorsed candidates played a role in her losing her seat in a year where only a small number of voters turned out. The teachers association is in contract negotiations.

“I always run as an independent,” Omar said. “I don’t feel comfortable being endorsed by any group. I just think this low voter turnout really opened up the board for this special interest group to rally their troops.”

The test of what that will mean will come after new school board members are sworn in next month.

Like other candidates elected with the help of teachers, Shawn Lemay, a small-business owner in Williamsville, said he plans to look at all sides of every issue on which he votes.

“This is nothing new,” he said. “Unions have been endorsing candidates for years and years and years, and that will continue. That will not mean that unions own the board. I’m a candidate and now a board member-elect who will always do his homework. I’m never going to go along with the masses just because it’s the popular vote.”