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Teachers union candidates poised to take control of Williamsville School Board

As tensions escalated last year between the Williamsville teachers union and the district administration, three union-backed School Board candidates swept out two incumbents.

This year, the teachers’ association has endorsed three candidates who are public school teachers in other districts.

Mary Bieger, Teresa Anne Leatherbarrow, and Suzanne Van Sice all got union endorsements.

The union snubbed incumbent Anthony J. Lafornara III, a teacher in Buffalo city schools who got the endorsement when he ran three years ago. Also running is Shonda Brock, a territory manager for St. Jude Medical.

If Bieger, Leatherbarrow and Van Sice are successful, union-backed candidates from the past two years would have a majority on the nine-member board.

What would it do?

“We’d like a return to peace in the district,” said Michelle Licht, president of the teachers association.

Current board members might say they have been working on that.

A lot has changed since May 2015.

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Last year there was standing room only for the annual School Board candidates’ night in Williamsville, where the audience cheered for their favorite candidates.

This year: plenty of room to sit or stand, and quiet conversations with candidates agreeing on many questions.

The teachers’ union last year held a vote of no confidence in the School Board and Superintendent Scott G. Martzloff the month before the election.

This year, the School Board initiated a process for an “independent assessment by a neutral consultant” to look at the relationships between and actions by the board, superintendent, assistant superintendents, union leaders and employees.

That’s not exactly the outside investigator the Williamsville Teachers Association wanted to probe employee complaints about the superintendent, but there have been three meetings among the parties to talk about process for the assessment.

In February, the board rescinded the retirements of two respected administrators, Anna R. Cieri, assistant superintendent for exceptional education and student services, and Thomas R. Maturski, assistant superintendent for finance and management services, and gave them raises and three-year contracts.

The board also has held several forums to discuss issues with community members.

The budget isn’t causing any stirs in Williamsville, either.

The proposed budget would add $1.62 million in programming, including lowering class sizes by one each in first and second grades, while staying within the tax cap.

Better communication

More transparency and honesty on the board are themes repeated by several candidates, including the only candidate not working in education, Brock.

“I think we need more of an active listenership from the community and the community hearing and seeing things going on with the board,” she said, suggesting using technology to increase two-way communication, such as a phone app that would allow the community to tune in to board meetings as well as comment on them. She also noted that diversity in the community is growing.

“We are looking different within the community, and so my question is: How are our schools doing embracing that within the school system itself?” Brock said.

Van Sice, a special-education teacher in Lockport city schools, said one of her goals is to “encourage open and honest communication between the board members and the entire community” to promote “mutual trust and respect, to demand accountability.”

She said parents, teachers and students feel like they are not being heard.

“When they do share their concerns and give feedback, they would like to know the board is going to listen to support them and take action as needed,” she said.

Lafornara, a physical education teacher, said he would like to see more positivity. He said conversations with staff members in the district have changed from discussions about children to talk about board transparency.

“People are getting sick of the focus not being on children,” he said.

He also said that public education has to change.

“We are teaching kids what to think and we are not teaching kids how to think,” he said.

Leatherbarrow, an elementary teacher in Buffalo city schools, said the biggest challenge facing the district is federal and state mandates regarding Common Core standards, high-stakes testing and teacher evaluations. She said she wants to be an advocate for children and send the message that “we do not support high-stakes testing, that we are in favor of well-rounded curriculum that does not just merely focus on ELA and math.”

Leatherbarrow and Bieger, who have been regulars at School Board meetings for several years, are on the steering committee of Western New Yorkers for Public Education, a parent group that supports opting out of state assessments, among other education issues.

“I am not against testing,” Leatherbarrow said. “I am against unfair testing.”

Bieger, an elementary teacher in the Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda district, said state tests are driving the material and curriculum taught to students. Bieger said she has seen a bit more communication between the School Board and the community recently, and would like to see that continue with all stakeholders in the community. She also said she is concerned about funding for schools.

“I think it’s very important we continue to advocate for fair funding, we continue to advocate for decisions made a local level rather than a state level,” she said.