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Miscalculations may doom reformist School Board

As much as it pains me to say it, they have only themselves to blame.

There is a good chance that the reformist bloc of the Buffalo Board of Education will lose their 5-4 majority in Tuesday’s election. If so, chalk it up to another miscalculation.

Board President Jim Sampson, as well as two reform-friendly candidates, didn’t gather enough valid petition signatures to qualify for the ballot. They clearly underestimated the pushback of community groups, unions and union-backed politicians to the business-backed board majority. If those forces needed added motivation, the face of change – unfortunately for Buffalo’s school reform movement – is right-wing pit bull and Donald Trump acolyte Carl Paladino.

The fallout, Sampson told me, made it tough to get signatures in his heavily Democratic district.

“There were times I went out for three or four hours,” he said, “and came back with five or six signatures.”

The larger blowback involved an impressively run phone and door-to-door campaign to disqualify petition signatures and remove reform candidates from the ballot – tactics uncommon even in larger, party-based elections. Sampson had nearly 200 signatures disqualified, falling nine short of the needed 500.

“I knew I’d be a target,” Sampson said. “But I’ve been really surprised by the level of aggressive political behavior in this election.”

The grim irony: The educational path of some 34,000 school kids, the handling of an $825 million budget and the fate of district-backed charter school conversions, a longer school day and other classroom innovations, may come down to nine signatures on a ballot-qualifing petition.

Ironic, too, that the bumped incumbent is Sampson, 68, whose school-reform credentials date back more than a decade. He is rational, respectful and – unlike some of his harder-core board colleagues – willing to claim small victories, rather than push for unrealistic capitulations.

This board needs more voices of reason, not fewer.

No one knows how Tuesday’s vote will go. But with Sampson a long-shot write-in, and majority-bloc incumbent Jay McCarthy uncertain to withstand a challenge from union-backed Hope Jay, Buffalo school reform seems about to crash on the rocks.

If so, add the campaign miscalculations to a list of reformer missteps during nearly two years in power. Their reluctance to compromise, failure to anticipate the complexity of education law and underestimation of the rope-a-dope tactics of the teachers’ union – along with the ugliness of Paladino’s personal attacks – led to much sound and fury but little progress.

Not that altering a district beset by racial politics, hamstrung by reform-defying union work rules and saddled with a sharply-divided board is an easy lift. But the “take-no-prisoners” sensibility of majority-bloc leaders Paladino and fellow hard-liner Larry Quinn made them flawed agents of change. The ideologues even turned on their own. Paladino last year labeled Sampson a “pathetic and treacherous liberal equivocator” for pushing Kriner Cash’s ultimately successful superintendent candidacy. The majority bloc forced out Don Ogilvie, their once-favored interim superintendent, partly for lending an ear to the minority faction.

It didn’t help that State Ed overplayed its hand by tying teacher evaluations to test scores – a patently unfair measure for teachers in urban classrooms stuffed with poor kids from struggling families.

The host of majority-bloc miscalculations included the rejection of a union work-rule compromise at four “at-risk” schools, an inability to crack the long-petrified teachers’ contract, and a failed attempt to force-feed superintendent choice Jim Wiemer down the community’s throat. The endless controversies mobilized opposition and narrowed the window for reform.

There’s a good chance that window shuts Tuesday.

“My biggest concern is there remains an environment conducive to Dr. Cash remaining in Buffalo,” Sampson said. “I think he’s very good and knows how to bring people together.” The district, after Tuesday, may need a unifier more than ever.