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Buffalo School Board campaigns attract $44,000 in contributions so far

Big money has flowed into some Buffalo School Board races in recent years, and this year’s campaign is off to another strong fundraising start.

Contributions of at least $44,000 have been made to candidates running in the May 3 election, according to their initial financial filings.

Ninety percent of that money went to just four candidates:

• Developer Carl P. Paladino is financing his re-election bid in the Park District with $10,000 of his own money.

• School Board President James M. Sampson raised $7,300 so far to defend his West District seat. Sampson has since been knocked off the ballot but is considering a court challenge or write-in campaign.

• Jason M. “Jay” McCarthy, a two-term incumbent, has raised $12,251 – the most of any candidate this year. In fact, the North District race is shaping up to be the most expensive.

• Hope R. Jay, an attorney challenging McCarthy, has raised $8,517, thanks to support from within the legal community and backing from some of Erie County’s top Democrats.

The money funneled into Buffalo’s races is significant, considering that candidates for local school boards tend to run low-budget campaigns – knocking on doors, rallying church congregants, staking signs on their neighbors’ lawns.

The New York State School Boards Association, in fact, reported that 61 percent of its members – including those in suburban districts – spent no money on their campaigns, according to a survey conducted in 2011, the most recent available. More than a third said they spent less than $1,000.

The escalating cost of races in Buffalo, though, is part of a trend that became evident in 2009 when Christopher L. Jacobs – now the Erie County clerk who is running for State Senate – raised $52,000 to win an at-large seat on the School Board.

Four years later, Paladino captured his district seat on the board using more than $20,000 of his own money – and that wasn’t even the largest amount spent by a candidate that year. That distinction went to McCarthy, who raised nearly $25,000.

Two years ago, $179,000 – a record-breaking number – flowed into the citywide School Board races, with Larry Quinn alone raising $82,000 to secure his at-large seat. The School Board positions pay $5,000 a year.

Who’s running is a big factor in how much money gets spent. The biggest spenders have been well-heeled candidates who have either bankrolled their own campaigns or raised money with help from their well-off family members or friends.

However, the other factor is the financial arms race that has escalated in recent years between the teachers union and educational reform groups, both trying to influence the outcome of the election.

The Buffalo Teachers Federation long has provided financial support to its favored candidates, but educational reformers with competing interests and deep pockets also have joined the fray in recent years.

The Buffalo Niagara Partnership spent about $30,000 on behalf of Jacobs and two other board candidates during the 2009 election.

The following year, a downstate education reform group spent about $50,000 in Buffalo promoting a few candidates, including Sampson.

In 2014, the reform group Students First contributed a total of $30,000 toward the campaigns of Quinn and unsuccessful candidate Bernard A. Tolbert.

It’s too early to tell whether the campaign money will pile up during this election to the same extent as it has in the past.

While there’s speculation that the union is determined to flip the board majority in its favor, there also are questions about whether the reform movement has cooled down, particularly after the change in leadership on the state Board of Regents that many interpret as creating a more anti-reform board in Albany.

Money from the unions and reform groups did not show up on the first financial filings candidates submitted April 5. A second financial filing is due Thursday, followed by a post-election filing May 23. State education law requires candidates to disclose the name and address of each person or group that gave them money, along with the amount of each donation.

In Buffalo, reporting financial contributions is handled almost entirely on paper rather than online. But reporting is not uniform among the candidates and it isn’t policed by either the state Education Department or the district, all of which makes it difficult to get accurate contribution amounts.

The first round of filings shows that:

• Paladino is self-financed. The developer also has financed Colleen E. Russell, the Central District candidate he recruited, and contributed $576 to pay for canvassers to circulate her petitions.

• Sampson – a member of the board’s majority bloc, along with Paladino and McCarthy – has raised $7,350. His largest contributors were developers Samuel J. Savarino, who gave $5,000, and Mark E. Hamister, who gave $1,000.

Sampson’s opponent, Jennifer L. Mecozzi, raised $2,691 at the time that financial filings were due, but her paperwork – submitted after the April 5 deadline – showed she had raised triple that amount by then.

• McCarthy and Jay combined have raised more than $20,000 in their race for the North District – $12,251 for McCarthy, $8,511 for Jay. McCarthy received mostly individual contributions, the largest being $800 from Michael and Suzanne Cryan.

Jay contributed $1,200 of her own money. She also received $500 contributions from four others, including Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz. Erie County Democratic Chairman Jeremy J. Zellner also contributed $100.

• Incumbent Theresa A. Harris-Tigg, locked in a race for the East District seat with Russell, received $3,200 for her campaign, although she did not provide a breakdown of who contributed.

• Sharon M. Belton-Cottman, Harris-Tigg’s colleague in the board’s minority bloc, spent nearly $700 on her campaign. She is running unopposed in the Ferry District.

• Bryon J. McIntyre, a candidate for Central District, and East District challenger Patricia A. Elliott each reported spending less than $50 on their campaigns so far. Elliott was knocked off the ballot last week but is running a write-in campaign.

• Austin Harig and Paulette Woods, who announced their School Board candidacies late in the process, said they did not raise any money prior to the first reporting deadline. Woods is running in the Central District, while Harig is competing in the Park District.