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Six Buffalo School Board candidates bring parent perspective to race

What could be dubbed “parent power” has made its way into the race for the Buffalo School Board.

Six parents of public school students are running for a seat on the board. No current member of the board has a child enrolled in a traditional district school.

Three of the seven challengers looking to unseat four incumbents or take over the lone seat being vacated are campaigning together on a “Parents Coalition for Students’ Rights” platform. They say their movement is about empowering parents – or guardians – and not being controlled by board factions or special-interest groups.

Another candidate – Jennifer L. Mecozzi, who has ties to the Buffalo Parent-Teacher Organization – is running on a similar parent power platform for the West District seat held by Board President James M. Sampson.

Hope R. Jay also is “running as a parent and concerned community member” against incumbent Jason M. McCarthy for the North District seat.

And Colleen Russell – a parent volunteer at Lovejoy Discovery School, where two of her children attend – thinks it’s a good idea to have a parent on the board to give a “different perspective.” She is running for the East District seat. Each seat is for three years, and board members get a $5,000 annual stipend.

The six candidates said parent representation is critical on the School Board, especially since no current member is a parent of a student enrolled in a traditional public school, not counting charter schools. It’s important, they say, because parents deal with the day-to-day matters affecting students, which people sitting in an office don’t see on a daily basis.

“Parents will keep in mind that the child is the only reason” they would serve on the School Board, said Patricia Elliott, one of the Parents Coalition members who hopes to unseat East District incumbent Theresa A. Harris-Tigg.

Other members of the Parents Coalition are Bryon McIntyre, who is running for the Central District seat being vacated by Mary Ruth Kapsiak, and Desiree J. Radford, who is vying for Sharon Belton-Cottman’s seat in the Ferry District.

McIntyre, who has a ninth-grader at Hutchison-Central Technical High School and a senior at Stanley G. Falk School, said parents have different views on various issues facing students.

For example, he cited an extremely icy morning this past winter when about 50 percent of school buses were late running their routes, leaving many students out in the cold. Some buses were still delivering kids as late as 10:30 a.m.

“They can say, ‘Oh, we’re sorry. We’re going to monitor it,’ ” McIntyre said. “It’s totally different when it’s your child out there. When you don’t have a child in the system, those things are academic; but when you have a child, there is a direct impact. Impacts that matter.”

McIntyre said he is not allied with either the current majority or minority blocs on the board. Rather, he said, he is on the side of moms and dads.

“I’m aligned with the parent agenda,” said McIntyre, who has never won a School Board seat in six prior attempts.

Radford, whose child will be attending Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts in September, is the sister of Samuel L. Radford III, president of the District Parent Coordinating Council. A stay-at-home mom, Radford said she’s been a parent advocate since 2002, when she successfully filed a federal lawsuit to stop the sudden layoff of hundreds of teachers.

The other three parents are not part of the coalition, but still are emphasizing the unique perspective they say comes from having a child in the school system who is directly affected by decisions the board makes.

Russell, for instance, has children at Lovejoy Discovery School and volunteers as a parent facilitator as well as a parent representative for the District Parent Coordinating Council.

“Parents see what’s going on at the school level, especially parents who are very involved in schools. I think the district realizes that it’s important that a parent is on the board,” she said.

Russell said she supports lowering class sizes, community schools and bringing back neighborhood schools.

“If schools were nearby, parents would be more involved because traveling wouldn’t be such a burden. Teachers would become more-recognized figures within the communities they teach in,” said Russell, who will seek the endorsement of the Buffalo Teachers Federation.

Russell is aligned with the board majority and backed by Park District Member Carl P. Paladino, who is running unopposed.

Jay has a child who is a junior at a district high school, though she would not say where at this time so her child would not receive the extra attention associated with her candidacy. She said she is not aligned with any faction on the School Board, but her campaign committee primarily is made up of district teachers and other attorneys, and she plans to seek the endorsement of the BTF.

Having a child enrolled in a public school is an “important qualification” for a School Board member, and it makes “logical sense” to have parents sitting on the board, she said.

“It’s important because we have a personal investment in what’s going on in public education. That level of personal investment takes it to another level when it’s your child,” said Jay, daughter of the late, well-known defense and civil rights attorney David G. Jay. She was an Erie County assistant district attorney from 2006 to 2010 before starting her own law firm in 2011.

Mecozzi, who has two children at Middle Early College High School and one at Waterfront Elementary, said the parent perspective has been missing from the board. She says it is essential that the district develop better communication to inform parents about what is happening inside the schools, listen to the community and craft solutions that work for parents, families, students, staff and the community.

“It isn’t acceptable to just make decisions that affect our children and then simply present them to us in an unwrapped box,” said Mecozzi, who is affiliated with teachers and whose campaign manager – Eve Shippens – is the Parent-Teacher Organization’s community liaison. She has been endorsed by Citizen Action and is seeking the BTF’s endorsement.

Many of the parent candidates have histories that include extensive involvement with the district.

Elliott, for instance, who has a child at Emerson School of Hospitality and who has worked for Community Action Organization of Erie County since 2008, volunteers with the District Parent Coordinating Council and has been a parent facilitator at schools her children attended. In 2013, she was included in a petition to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights alleging that the district was violating the rights of minority students in admission to some of Buffalo’s highly sought-after criterion-based schools.

Radford said she’s been a parent advocate since 2002, when she successfully filed a federal lawsuit to stop the sudden layoff of hundreds of teachers. In addition, she was a co-complainant with Elliott in the 2013 Office of Civil Rights petition. McIntyre has chaired the district’s Special Education Parents Advisory Committee and been a DPCC vice president for the past five years.

All three Parent Coalition members have been endorsed by the Buffalo Local Action Committee and are supported by Grassroots, the political organization of Mayor Byron W. Brown. Grassroots is helping Elliott, McIntyre and Radford get their petitions signed, and the organization is providing meeting space for the candidates, Elliott said. The coalition’s motto says that nobody can advocate for children in schools like parents, she said.

Jay seemed to sum up the feeling of the parent candidates: “I’m glad to see that there’s a bunch of concerned parents that are running and have an investment in the public schools.”

Another challenger – Dwayne Kelly – is running against McIntyre for the Central District seat and is aligned with the board majority. Kelly sits on the site management team at East High School and is chairman of the alumni association. A retiree, he worked 20 years in litigation support for private attorneys and various companies and organizations in New York City.

Desmond Nalls, who is running for the Ferry District seat, did not respond to inquiries.

Dropping out of the race for the East District seat is Michael Woolford, a retired laborer with the Erie County Highway Department, who was backed by Paladino but said he was not prepared for the commitment it would take to run for or sit on the board.

Adrian Harris also has suspended his campaign for Sampson’s West District seat, saying he didn’t want to split the anti-Sampson vote between himself and Mecozzi.