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Disputed petitions roiling races for Buffalo School Board

Another candidate aligned with the Buffalo School Board majority was knocked off the ballot Monday in the latest twist in a fierce contest for control of the board.

The continued challenges to petitions of would-be candidates underscore the dramatic politics that make this an unusually tense election, drawing interest from political, labor and business factions not typically involved in School Board races.

Although attempts to knock people off the ballot are not unusual, this year’s challenges have been particularly aggressive, with those opposing candidates aligned with the board’s current majority showing up at homes and calling voters who signed petitions to verify their authenticity.

The outsiders jumping in to sway the outcome of the race represent an influential group of political leaders, including Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz, State Sen. Marc C. Panepinto, D-Buffalo, and the local affiliate of the AFL-CIO, which represents all of the region’s labor unions.

“It’s highly unusual,” said School Board President James M. Sampson, who was knocked off the ballot for his West District seat last week because he did not collect the required 500 valid signatures.

Sampson said he will challenge the decision in court and, if unsuccessful there, will run as a write-in candidate in the May 3 election.

On Monday, Colleen E. Russell, who is backed by board member Carl P. Paladino and supported by other majority bloc members on the divided board, was removed from the ballot after a judge disqualified two of her signatures.

Russell showed up in court Monday morning expecting to defend herself against allegations that she does not actually live in the East District, where she is running to unseat incumbent Theresa A. Harris-Tigg.

Instead, Amherst Democratic Chairman Jerome D. Schad, the attorney representing her opponent, moved to strike the two signatures from her petition, thus leaving her with just 498 and making her ineligible to run.

North District incumbent Jason M. McCarthy, also aligned with the majority bloc, was scheduled to appear in court Tuesday to answer allegations that he fraudulently obtained his petition signatures, and some now wonder whether his opponent, Hope R. Jay, will challenge some of the signatures themselves.

Although McCarthy collected 937 names, he now has only 510 signatures left after last week’s challenges at the county Board of Elections.

Those trying to get McCarthy eliminated from the race appear to have been hard at work looking for flaws in his petitions, although technically the deadline to challenge signatures has passed.

McCarthy said that some of his supporters received calls from Joseph P. McMahon, a special assistant to Poloncarz, questioning their signatures. Other McCarthy supporters received calls from employees in Panepinto’s law office, he said.

Panepinto did not return a call seeking comment.

In a written response, Poloncarz spokesman Peter A. Anderson said: “Mr. McMahon has been involved in the elections in a completely voluntary, non-paid capacity and has been doing that work on his own time; people from both political parties are doing such work. However, as there is court action pending here, he will not be commenting on what his involvement has been; he does not want to prejudice the court proceedings.”

Earlier in the election season, Poloncarz hosted a fundraiser for Jay. McCarthy, who has expressed interest in running for offices including the County Legislature or the Common Council, said he suspects that his political foes may be trying to undermine him as a potential candidate for other elected positions.

But he said there’s also another key factor.

“They hate me because I’m aligned with Carl on the School Board,” McCarthy said, referring to Paladino. “They’re trying to diminish his power as much as possible.”

Those opposed to the majority and its agenda are making the politics and controversy surrounding Paladino a central issue in the race.

Paladino has been a lightning rod since he joined the board three years ago, drawing criticism for his support of charter schools and push to overhaul the teacher contract.

“We think the so-called majority of the board has not been reform-minded,” said Richard Lipsitz Jr., president of the Western New York Area Labor Federation. “How can it be reform-minded and led by someone who passes racist and bigoted emails?”

The organization’s involvement in a School Board race is highly unusual, but Lipsitz said the group is also motivated by the importance of education to the city’s economic-development strategy.

“We see education in Western New York as an economic-development tool. Good public education is in the interest of everyone in this community,” Lipsitz said.

Among the candidates the organization is supporting is Austin Harig, the 18-year old Buffalo student who is boldly attempting to unseat Paladino in the Park District.

Harig, a senior at Hutchinson-Central Technical High School, called in to WBEN’s “Hardline” radio program Sunday morning – interrupting an interview with Paladino about his work on Donald Trump’s presidential campaign – to challenge him to an impromptu debate about school issues.

With just a week left until the vote, some expect the political jockeying to escalate, especially with some candidates’ waging court battles for a spot on the ballot.

Paladino said late Monday that he would support any of the majority-aligned candidates in their court battles and that Russell had not yet decided whether to continue her campaign.

“It stinks to high heaven,” Paladino said of the petition challenges. “All because of a union that wants to write its own contract.”

Russell also said she was still weighing whether to challenge the ruling after she and her attorneys were clearly caught off guard Monday.

“It’s pretty sad they would go to such an extent to alleviate the competition,” Russell said.

Russell originally appeared before State Supreme Court Justice John F. O’Donnell on Monday to verify her residency after Harris-Tigg’s husband, Robert, had accused Russell of lying about where she lives, saying she does not reside in the Lovejoy area.

But Schad, the attorney, changed course by introducing new objections to two signatures on Russell’s petitions.

“Over the weekend, we realized we could not prove residency was invalid,” said Schad, who called three witnesses to make his case.

One of them, Renee L. Felger, testified that it was not her signature on Russell’s petition because she was not home at the time to sign it.

“My wife signed my signature,” Felger said.

Her wife, Kristin, took the stand and verified Felger’s statement. Kristin Felger said she asked the person carrying the petition whether if it was all right for her to sign on behalf of a spouse and was told that it was.

The other signature that Schad challenged Monday belonged to Lisa A. McClintic. Her sister, Karen, testified that Lisa actually lives in Lancaster, not within Buffalo’s East District.

Russell’s attorney, Joseph T. Burns, objected to Schad’s disputing the two additional signatures without giving prior notice. The appropriate time for Schad to have made those objections would have been during last Thursday’s public hearings with the county Board of Elections, Burns said. Monday’s court session was to deal with the residency accusation.

Schad “didn’t bring them up Thursday and provide notice of objections of signatures. This has nothing to do with residency,” Burns told the judge.

In the end, O’Donnell invalidated Felger’s and McClintic’s signatures, leaving Russell with 498 signatures – two short of 500 to qualify for the ballot.

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