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Union-backed candidates take control of School Board

Once again, the political winds on the Buffalo School Board are shifting, with Tuesday’s election putting an end to the current majority and replacing it with a new one backed by the teachers union.

Candidates supported by the Buffalo Teachers Federation nearly swept this year’s races, unseating two incumbents and handily taking three of the other seats up for grabs. Incumbent Sharon Belton-Cottman, who ran unopposed in the Ferry District, also had support from the BTF, giving union-backed candidates a supermajority of six votes on the board.

“This is a victory for our community,” said Theresa A. Harris-Tigg, who handily won re-election in the East District.

Among the most interesting developments Tuesday was that Carl P. Paladino maintained his seat by a narrow margin of 107 out of nearly 3,000 votes cast, with 18-year-old Austin Harig taking 48 percent of the vote. And in that Park District race, 140 absentee ballots still need to be counted.

“Carl, you’re the loser. I’m not the loser,” Harig said after the results came in. “This wasn’t about winning a seat … This was about kids in the district.”

The election results suggest that, by and large, those who turned out to vote are dissatisfied with the current majority’s performance in its two years controlling the board, and were perhaps influenced by the numerous factions that jumped into this year’s races attempting to upset the board’s balance of power.

If the majority has broader support in the community, it didn’t show at the polls.

“Community can take a stand against money, against greed, against power,” said Jennifer L. Mecozzi, who handily ousted School Board President James P. Sampson from his seat representing the West District. “We got our own power.”

The shift comes with the ouster of majority members Sampson and Jason M. “Jay” McCarthy, who will be replaced by Hope R. Jay in the North District.

Other candidates aligned with the majority failed to get enough support to defeat their opponents, with Paulette Woods handily defeating Bryon J. McIntyre in the Central District and Harris-Tigg easily winning the East District.

Now, the question becomes what the election results will mean for the direction of the school district.

All of the candidates have said they support the key components of Superintendent Kriner Cash’s agenda, such as community schools, lower class sizes and a focus on early literacy.

“I particularly want to encourage people to embrace the agenda of Kriner Cash,” Sampson said upon his concession.

Perhaps the most significant shift will be how the board approaches its negotiations with the Buffalo Teachers Federation, which is working under a contract that expired more than a decade ago.

The outgoing majority took a hard-line approach, bringing in a tough attorney from downstate to place demands on the table such as a longer school day and changes to the teachers’ health plan. It is likely the majority elected Tuesday will take a softer approach to negotiations.

Also uncertain is whether the new majority will embrace Cash’s power under the state receivership law, which many of the candidates said they oppose. Although the law deliberately cuts the School Board out of decision-making for struggling schools placed in receivership, the board could attempt to undercut Cash as he exercises those powers.

Voters who were part of the effort to unseat majority members criticized them for a lack of vision and for creating acrimony in the district.

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 opposed 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.”

Jay led McCarthy in the race for the North District seat 2,236 to 1,873, with all but one precinct reporting.

“I think the voters in the North District were dissatisfied with the makeup of the current board and they wanted a change,” Jay said. “I foresee a board that’s going to be able to work together, that’s going to be able to have civil discourse and discussion.”

The North District race was a hotly contested one filled with big campaign contributions and contrasting educational ideologies from the two candidates on everything from charter schools to extending the school day to the use of standardized tests. In fact, the race kicked into high gear last week, when Jay’s camp – which included support from Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz – hauled McCarthy into court on allegations of election fraud.

While the court found no wrongdoing on McCarthy’s part, he did have a handful of signatures on his petitions invalidated and barely squeaked by with enough to make the ballot.

“I guess the community has spoken that they do not want change in Buffalo Public Schools,” McCarthy said Tuesday night. “They want status quo.”

In another high-profile race, Sampson failed to garner enough write-in support to maintain his seat representing the West District.

Sampson got knocked off the ballot last month after the Erie County Board of Elections ruled that he fell 31 signatures short of the 500 needed to make the ballot. Sampson then went to State Supreme Court to try and restore the disputed signatures to get back on the ballot. But he fell short again, left with 491.

Sampson drew criticism both for his alliance to Paladino and support of charter schools, something that helped Anthony Gorny decide to cast his ballot for Mecozzi.

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

The Park District race pitted a high school senior against one of the city’s most influential businessmen, and ultimately Harig gave Paladino a somewhat unexpected run for his money in what many consider “Carl Country.”

Paladino led the race with 1,543 votes, while Harig garnered 1,436.

Harig enjoyed support not only from the teachers unions, but the local affiliate of the AFL-CIO, which got involved for the first time in School Board elections.

“I feel like it was a big victory,” said Harig, who was greeted by applause at the BTF celebration Tuesday night in the Pearl Street Grill & Brewery. “They lost the majority and that’s all I cared about.”

News Staff Reporter Sandra Tan contributed to this report.

email: tlankes@buffnews.com, dswilliams@buffnews.com, jrey@buffnews.com