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Despite high stakes, voter turnout is low for Buffalo School Board races

Tuesday’s Buffalo School Board elections were expected to draw fewer voters than either two years ago or three years ago, when new voices – aided by big money – energized new voters interested in seeing the district move in a different direction.

This time around – with the direction of the district at stake again – election inspectors and political observers say the bloom was off the rose, with fewer voters paying attention, especially after two weeks of political challenges that knocked three candidates off the ballot and left others scrambling to regain traction after the dust settled.

Erie County Board of Elections Commissioner Leonard R. Lenihan predicted early Tuesday that voter turnout would be considerably lower than in the 2013 district races, when it reached 9 percent, or the 2014 at-large election, when turnout reached 13 percent, the highest in many years. This despite the fact that control of the nine-member board was up for grabs with the six district seats being on the ballot.

A visit to the busiest polling places in the most contested districts Tuesday also suggested that union-backed candidates seem to have benefitted more from money, manpower and determination than board majority bloc incumbents and allied candidates, who have shown signs of being more distracted and disorganized than their challengers.

At the Unitarian Universalist Church on Elmwood Avenue, for instance – one of the busiest polling places in the city during School Board races – board majority incumbent Jason M. McCarthy didn’t have any signs out, while his North District challenger, Hope R. Jay, faithfully stood outside during the lunch hour rush alongside a fellow campaigner, with signs dotting the sidewalk.

A similar pattern was seen at other major polling places across the city.

Buffalo Teachers Federation President Philip Rumore said his people manned phone banks Monday night and that robocalls went out to voters Tuesday, encouraging them to turn out. Rumore said some of the robocalls draw negative associations between board majority bloc member Carl P. Paladino and those he endorsed in this year’s race.

The union also planned to have people go door-to-door after school to get voters to the polls in support of their endorsed candidates, he said.

“We expect to reach a couple thousand in this district,” Rumore said, after casting his own ballot in the North District, which typically sees some of the highest turnout during board elections.

Here’s a quick look at four of the most hotly contested races Tuesday among the six district contests to determine control of the nine-member board.

North District

Unlike other polling place throughout the city, the Unitarian Universalist Church saw a steady stream of voters Tuesday.

“I thought it would be Dudsville,” said election inspector Laura Boyack. “I’m pleasantly surprised.”

Signs for Jay were planted outside the church, and she arrived shortly before the lunch hour to shake hands with prospective voters.

Glen Graham, 55, a Cheektowaga high school teacher who also has a child attending Olmsted School 156 in the city, said he was firmly behind Jay and opposes candidates such as McCarthy, who supports charter schools.

“I like that she has a child in the district, and I’m not a real fan with what the majority has been trying to do,” Graham said. “I just don’t see much of a vision.”

Meanwhile, Amy Friedman, 57, said she was casting her ballot for McCarthy because she believes in his reform agenda and supports Superintendent Kriner Cash.

“I believe the majority bloc on the board has made tremendous progress,” said Friedman, a founder of Tapestry Charter School. “It’s everything we’ve been fighting for the last 20 years, and I don’t want to see it unravel.”

West District

At the former home of All Saints School in Riverside, eight election inspectors sat around with very little to do, despite expectations that the lunch hour might bring more traffic.

In a district where incumbent Board President James M. Sampson was waging a write-in campaign against challenger Jennifer L. Mecozzi, there were no signs indicating Sampson was running a race there until a young woman quickly left her car in an otherwise quiet parking lot to greet a prospective voter and instruct her how to fill out a write-in ballot. Representatives for Mecozzi’s campaign also were present.

While waiting for voters, election inspectors complained about how voters in the district were treated in a particularly contentious election, with many who signed petitions for either candidate being interrogated by opponents to see if their petitions were valid. Having strangers call them or show up their doorstep was intimidating and may have contributed to the low turnout, inspectors said.

Inspector William Geary said people who lived in his neighborhood felt “depressed and suppressed.”

“They were really afraid,” he said.

One of the few voters who did show up during the lunch hour, Anthony Gorny, 66, said he was voting for Mecozzi.

“She’s interested in protecting the public school system from privatization,” said Gorny, a SUNY Buffalo State professor.

Voter Paula Aquino, 57, said she voted for Sampson.

“I want things to be better,” said Aquino, who has two grandchildren in the school system. “We need change.”

Central District

At New Covenant Church of Christ on Clinton Street, in the district where Paulette Woods and Bryon J. McIntyre were vying for the seat being vacated by retiring incumbent Mary Ruth Kapsiak, signs for Woods were everywhere. There were no obvious signs for McIntyre, a parent advocate who declined union support.

Election inspector Yvette Mack said voter turnout wasn’t too slow, but it also wasn’t as high as three years ago.

Ellis Woods, 66, said he voted for Woods – no relation – because he was concerned about the direction of the School Board.

“I think all the acrimony and the fighting, it doesn’t help the kids,” he said.

Justin Parisi, 43, who moved into a city condo from West Seneca in January, said he was supporting McIntyre because he sides with the current board majority that is focused on change.

“To get people to move into the city, schools need to be better,” he said.

Park District

Though South Buffalo is widely considered “Carl Country,” some voters Tuesday seemed intrigued by 18-year-old high school student Austin Harig, who has campaigned against incumbent Paladino.

Unlike in other districts, where signs for candidates aligned with the board majority seemed surprisingly absent, Paladino’s signs stood next to Harig’s outside Dudley Library on South Park Avenue. Voting was steadier here than in most other districts, though not as busy as in North.

Voter Ellen Gehen-Manke, 71, said she’s been a long-time Paladino supporter ever since her son-in-law, Lou Petrucci, left the Park District seat and supported Paladino’s race for the seat three years ago.

“He gets his point across,” she said. “I think he’s made good ideas for the board, even though he’s got that aggression.”

But though she voted for Paladino, she also expressed curiosity about Harig, a teenager willing to go up against an indomitable force such as Paladino.

“Good for him,” she said of Harig. “He’s got spunk.”

Harrison Oldham, 23, said he voted for Harig because he think’s its important for a students to have a role in decisions that directly affect them.

“I do personally feel students need a voice,” he said.