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Money can’t buy School Board seat, analysis finds

Financial contributions in this year’s Buffalo School Board election soared past the amount given in previous district races, with donors putting more than $156,000 into the six contests.

And that figure doesn’t represent the full extent of resources put into the races, since some candidates have neglected to file their final financial reports and others failed to report campaign materials paid for on their behalf by outside organizations.

Still, donations identified by The Buffalo News underscore the intense interest in this year’s election as well as the organized effort to upset control of the board by ousting members of the majority.

And the results reinforce one point: Money can’t buy a seat on the Buffalo School Board.

Contributions from the 15 donors who gave at least $1,000 – in most cases to members of the now-outgoing majority – accounted for two-thirds of the money in the race.

Even so, incumbents Jason M. “Jay” McCarthy and James M. Sampson – who brought in the most contributions with $37,771 and $40,398, respectively – both lost. And while majority candidates collected the most money in their races, their challengers raised significantly more money than past opponents.

What’s not known is how much in-kind support – legally required to be disclosed – went unreported by candidates. The News identified several instances in which those running neglected to disclose outside support.

Although the Buffalo Teachers Federation spent close to $8,000 on mailers, lawn signs and advertising for its six choice candidates, only two of them reported receiving anything.

Meanwhile, those backed by the political action committee of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership failed to account for nearly $19,000 spent on their behalf by that group.

While candidates in half of the races wound up in court battling over ballot challenges, none of them reported any in-kind support for attorneys. In fact, both McCarthy and Sampson have said they do not know who paid their attorney fees, although Carl P. Paladino said he did. Their opponents, who stood to benefit from the attempts to knock them off the ballot, also did not report any in-kind support for court costs.

“If the question is ‘Why is it important to know where influence lie,’ that’s the answer,” said Robert J. Freeman, executive director of the state’s Committee on Open Government. “Realistically, it’s human nature to feel that when a person gives money to a candidate, he or she expects something in return.”

Flawed reporting

State education law requires candidates to disclose the name and address of each person or group that gave them money, along with the amount of each donation. That includes money spent on their behalf by outside organizations, which are supposed to provide the candidate with that information.

But unlike running for other offices, reporting financial contributions is done almost entirely on paper rather than online. The financial reporting is not uniform among candidates and isn’t policed by either the state Education Department or the district, all of which makes it difficult to get accurate contribution amounts.

Candidates regularly neglect to fulfill their legal duty to file reports, and those who do often fail to disclose in-kind donations and other outside support.

Eighteen-year-old Austin Harig submitted one of the most thorough reports in this year’s cycle. He used the official form required of candidates running for other offices.

Incumbents Sharon M. Belton-Cottman and Theresa A. Harris-Tigg, who both won re-election, failed to turn in their final reports to the Board of Education by last week’s deadline. So did Hope R. Jay, whose campaign manager indicated a report had been filed. But it had not been received by the Board of Education office by the end of the day Thursday. The reports were supposed to be postmarked Monday.

Those missing reports could account for money spent by the Buffalo Teachers Federation, but not reported by candidates. Buffalo Teachers Federation President Philip Rumore said the union spent nearly $8,000 in its effort to elect its favored candidates.

“We bought signs for everybody,” Rumore said of the union’s contribution.

Also noticeably missing was any in-kind support from the regional office of New York State United Teachers, which lead the way in filing petition challenges. Rumore said he believes NYSUT also paid some of the legal costs for those filing petition challenges.

The unions used to be the top contributors in School Board races, but it’s unclear whether any in-kind support would have surpassed donations given to members of the outgoing majority, largely from some of the city’s wealthiest individuals.

What the unions didn’t spend in dollars, they made up with manpower.

In the weeks leading up to the election, NYSUT and BTF officials organized a series of “Day of Action” events at schools that included rallies and forums. While union leaders said the events were not election related – but rather aimed to draw attention to key issues in education – the events gave the unions access to teachers, a key group of voters.

The Western New York Area Labor Federation also assisted candidates with phone banks and other volunteer work. At least two candidates were promoted with fliers that had the return address of the union, but president Richard Lipsitz said the candidates paid for the mailers themselves.

“Nothing ever came out of our bank account,” he said. “We used our return address and we used our phones.”

Closing the gap

Campaign contributions have increased in recent Buffalo School Board elections, gradually rising with each election cycle from the $21,500 brought in during the 2007 races.

Based on the reports filed, and other information obtained by The News, the money given in this year’s races outpaced the amounts in previous district contests. This year’s $156,000 surpassed the $84,942 in the last district election in 2013 and the $43,680 in 2010.

It fell short of the $179,000 raised in the 2014 citywide race for three at-large seats.

The most money this year went into the contest between Jay and McCarthy for the North District seat, with the two candidates pulling in nearly $50,000. That does not include any final donations to Jay, whose report was not submitted on time.

Members of the outgoing majority continued to be the top money-getters, but the gap between them and their opponents was much narrower than in previous years.

In the West District, for example, Ralph Hernandez raised just $1,800 in 2013, compared to Sampson’s $22,650. This year, Jennifer Mecozzi, who ultimately won the race, brought in $7,820 compared to Sampson’s $40,398. The same was true in the North District, where Jay’s last report indicated she brought in $12,115, compared to McCarthy’s $37,771. That was significantly higher than McCarthy’s two opponents in 2013, who raised $7,190 and $1,060, respectively, compared to McCarthy’s $24,864.

Donations to Jason M. “Jay” McCarthy, Carl P. Paladino and James M. Sampson made up 80 percent of donations in the 2013 district races, but this year those candidates only brought in 58 percent, largely fueled by support from the political action committee of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership.

Even in the Park District, where Paladino won by a narrow margin to a high school senior, donors rallied around 18-year-old Austin Harig, who collected $6,890. Paladino again financed his own campaign with $12,000. Paladino’s 2013 opponent, Adrian F. Harris, raised less than $500.

Outgoing majority members also collected fewer individual donations than their opponents, but pulled in larger dollar amounts. Sampson, for example, collected just 35 contributions, including $8,000 from former Gibraltar Industries chief executive officer Brian Lipke, $5,000 from the downstate charter school advocacy group Students First and $5,000 from developer Samuel Savarino.

Mecozzi had 123 individual donations, most of which were less than $50.

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