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Sampson’s ouster from election puts school reform agenda in jeopardy

James M. Sampson’s removal from the ballot for the May 3 Buffalo School Board election throws into serious doubt the school reform agenda of the majority bloc.

Not only is Sampson the board president and a key member of the majority, he has also been a moderating voice and occasional swing vote on the fractured board. But the Erie County Board of Elections ruled Thursday that he fell 31 signatures short of the 500 needed to make the ballot.

Sampson had not yet decided late Thursday whether to challenge the board’s ruling in court. He also could run as a write-in candidate.

But failing those two options, the majority bloc’s agenda – in favor of charter schools and aimed at improving graduation rates, attendance and academic performance – will be in serious jeopardy. The five-member bloc on the nine-member board forced out the previous superintendent, though its tactics have been criticized as heavy-handed by some members of the minority bloc.

The majority also took another hit Thursday when East District candidate Patricia Elliott, a parent expected to be sympathetic to its agenda, also failed to make the ballot for lack of signatures.

Sampson, however, is not giving up.

“We’re looking at our options, and we’ll make a decision by tomorrow whether to challenge the decision in State Supreme Court,” he said late Thursday. “I would further add that the voters of Buffalo and the West District deserve to have a choice on who represents them on the School Board.”

But if he is not reinstated, majority board members worry that they’ll lose ground on their agenda to improve accountability, offer more parent choice and curb the influence of the teachers’ union.

Since the current majority gained a one-seat edge on the board two years ago, they have been vocal critics of district achievement. They succeeded in forcing out Pamela Brown as school superintendent and then hiring Donald Ogilvie as interim replacement in a move they quickly soured on.

In the wake of Thursday’s ruling, other majority members expressed concern about the reform bloc’s fragile position and its ability to survive the May elections.

“I’d just hate to see us lose our forward momentum,” said at-large majority bloc board member Patti Pierce.

While Sampson and Elliott were both knocked off the ballot Thursday, Sampson’s opponent, Jennifer L. Mecozzi, survived her petition challenge. So did Park District candidate Austin Harig, the 18-year-old high school student challenging Carl P. Paladino, another majority bloc member. Harig made the ballot with just 509 valid signatures. Central District candidate Bryon J. McIntyre also survived a challenge to his petitions.

New York State United Teachers attempted to challenge multiple petitions for majority bloc candidates, or those considered sympathetic to their agenda, but the person filing the challenges was considered ineligible to do so because she did not live in the district in which she was trying to get candidates disqualified.

Amid the flurry of petition challenges, at least three candidates also face lawsuits alleging voter fraud. That includes Sampson, fellow majority bloc incumbent Jason M. McCarthy of the North District, and East District candidate Colleen E. Russell, who made the ballot with just six signatures to spare.

Russell, who is backed by Paladino, is due in court Friday to answer the fraud challenge filed by supporters of her opponent, incumbent Theresa Harris-Tigg.

“They’re trying to say I don’t live where I say I live,” she said. “All the documentation I need I have, to prove I live here.”

McCarthy, a new restaurant and bar owner, will appear in court Tuesday to answer fraud charges. He’s being challenged by attorney Hope R. Jay.

“I think I’ll be fine,” McCarthy said. “They claim I was having people fill out the petition at the bar unattended, which is false because I wasn’t even open until after the petitions were turned in.”

The Board of Elections ruling against Sampson, however, was a major blow to the majority bloc.

During his three-year tenure as a member of the School Board, Sampson has been considered a more moderate member of the board majority, occasionally serving as a swing vote on issues that the minority bloc supported. Most notably, he refused to support majority superintendent candidate Kevin Eberle – now the district’s chief of operations – prior to the board’s hiring of Superintendent Kriner Cash.

Despite occasional clashes, Cash has generally been able to gain respect from board members on both sides of the divide.

Barbara Seals Nevergold, a member of the minority bloc, said she appreciated Sampson taking a “principled stand” in the superintendent selection process and noted that he attempted to fill his board role while facing difficult personal challenges that weren’t always sympathetically viewed by fellow majority bloc members.

Sampson’s wife had been diagnosed with cancer and struggled through months of treatment before she died in December.

Pierce said that while Sampson faced many distractions, he has also treated everyone with respect.

“Jim is a true gentleman, and he always conducted himself in that manner,” she said. “He brought decorum and respect to our meetings. He was a listener. He didn’t have to have his lips moving all the time.”

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