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Tiny percentage of voters expected to decide fate of city schools

This year’s raucous race for the Buffalo Board of Education is nearing an end. Now comes the hard part: getting out the vote.

Despite factors that should drive up interest – control of the board being at stake, big money flowing into some campaigns, and outside forces trying to steer the outcome – history shows School Board races rest in the hands of relatively few voters.

“Extraordinarily low,” is how Leonard R. Lenihan, Democratic elections commissioner, describes the typical turnout.

Will Tuesday’s election be any different?

While voter participation can reach as high as 70 percent during a presidential election in November, Buffalo School Board elections fall at the opposite end of the spectrum, usually drawing only 5 to 10 percent of city voters, Lenihan said.

In 2010, for example, 5 percent of registered city voters cast a ballot for candidates running for the six district seats on the nine-member board, according to figures from the Erie County Board of Elections.

Voter turnout grew to just under 10 percent in 2013, the year developer Carl P. Paladino won a seat on the board.

And when the educational reform movement hit its stride in 2014, voter turnout for the board’s three at-large seats reached 13 percent – one of the highest anyone can remember. But that was still paltry.

“It’s always been that way,” said former Common Council President George K. Arthur, a veteran observer of local politics and voting patterns.

In fact, the poor voting record for School Board elections was the pattern even years ago, when they were held in November at the same time as the other political races, Arthur said. Even with the names of board candidates on the same ballot with all the others running for office, only a small percentage of voters actually got to the bottom of the ballot to cast their votes for School Board, Arthur said.

“People don’t have the opportunity to say ‘yea’ or ‘nay’ on the school budget in Buffalo. That’s one of the major reasons,” Arthur said. “Only those who are really, truly concerned about the School Board will go and vote.”

“Historically, it’s been low in the suburbs, as well,” Lenihan said. “It’s a time of year people aren’t used to voting and if you don’t have kids in the schools, people don’t have an interest.”

Turnout for Buffalo School Board elections has grown a bit in recent years. While the numbers are still small, the votes cast for district races nearly doubled between 2010 and 2013, to more than 13,000. Some of the highest vote totals three years ago came in the North District and the Park District – which covers South Buffalo – where turnout was roughly 14 percent in each, according to Board of Elections figures.

Still, if any School Board election were to draw more people to the polls, it could be this one.

Factions and write-ins

More money is being thrown into some of these races than in prior years. More attention is being paid as competing factions – including unions, business groups and political parties – work to upset the makeup of the board overseeing this poor, struggling school district.

The factional skirmishing has made for some intriguing storylines:

In the Central District, Paulette Woods and Bryon J. McIntyre are running for an open seat that could potentially be the swing vote on the nine-member board.

In the Park District, Paladino faces 18-year-old Austin Harig, a student supported by the Buffalo Teachers Federation and the AFL-CIO.

In the North District, two-term incumbent Jason M. McCarthy barely escaped being knocked off the ballot by challenger Hope R. Jay, who has in her corner Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz and state Sen. Marc C. Panepinto. Both have been involved in the effort to unseat candidates aligned with the board majority.

“Things have shifted,” said Ralph Hernandez, a former School Board member from the West District. “Now what you see is you have political parties involved. Committeemen are the ones actually moving a lot of the votes, where as before committee members really never got involved. Now, they’re involved in every district, as far as I’m concerned.”

In fact, Hernandez is a good example of how anything can happen in these races. Hernandez earned a seat on the board in 2004 as a write-in candidate, thanks largely to the endorsement of the teachers union. Among a crowded five-person field, he won with just 276 votes.

This year, there’s only one candidate on the ballot in three of the districts – East, West and Ferry – but two of those candidates face challengers running write-in campaigns.

In the East District – once a three-way race – incumbent Theresa A. Harris-Tigg is the only one on the ballot, and she will try to hold off a write-in challenge from Patricia A. Elliott, who was knocked off the ballot.

In the West District, challenger Jennifer L. Mecozzi is on the ballot, and will try to hold on against a vigorous write-in challenge from School Board President James M. Sampson, who also was knocked off the ballot after failing to have enough valid signatures.

“Even though my name is the only one on the ballot, you can never take that for granted,” Mecozzi said.

Her campaign has been making phone calls to constituents and hitting the neighborhoods over the past couple of days to get out the vote.

Sampson, meanwhile, has countered with a flurry of last-minute campaigning of his own, including phone banking and door-to-door visits encouraging voters to write his name in the blank box on the ballot.

Sampson also has had help from the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, which sent out reminders encouraging people to vote for him.

Public turned off?

Still, Sampson has no reason to believe turnout is going to be any larger than in the past, even with all the attention given to this year’s election.

“It’s not a citywide campaign, and even then, turnout was 13 percent,” Sampson said. “The one three years ago was a little bit higher, but I think that was in good measure because of Carl.”

Sampson also has a sense that people have grown tired of the board’s internal feuding.

“When we were going door to door,” Sampson said, “we found people were pretty cynical about the School Board and the district, even though I think we have made substantial progress.”

Polls are open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday at each voter’s normal polling location.