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Buffalo councilman apologizes for lashing out at Catholic school families

A Buffalo councilman earlier this week lashed out at Catholic school families during a debate over City Honors admission policies, setting off a backlash against himself.

Ulysees O. Wingo Sr. of the Masten District ended up apologizing Thursday for his earlier comments.

"I am Godly sorry," Wingo said in a written apology. "... in my passion for my constituency and our city's youth, I allowed myself to speak beyond my beliefs and made a statement in error that does not reflect my true opinion about Catholic schools, their families, or their students."

During a Common Council meeting Tuesday, Wingo spoke about school district efforts to increase African-American enrollment at City Honors, where blacks make up 17 percent of the enrollment, compared with a total Buffalo enrollment that is about 50 percent black.

As part of the discussion, Wingo introduced a resolution that mentioned a recently enacted district policy giving limited preference to public school students over private, parochial and charter students as a way to help address the racial disparity.

"If parents feel a Catholic education is right for them, by all means go to your Catholic schools and have fun saying your Catholic prayers," he said during the debate that followed.

Wingo's statement occurred after South District Council Member Christopher P. Scanlon spoke against a public school preference for City Honors, saying that many families in his district send their children to Catholic schools, especially in the early grades.

Therefore, he said, he would not support a policy that treated Catholic school students differently than public school ones when they're attempting to get into City Honors in middle or high school.

"I don't think it's right," Scanlon said.

City Hallways (April 5): Council talks City Honors - and it's not all friendly chatter

North District Council Member Joseph Golombek Jr. agreed, noting that many charter school families live in his district.

Rather than suggesting changes to City Honors, Golombek said, he would prefer to see other public schools operating as successfully as City Honors.

That is when Wingo shot back that no one is talking about eroding the success of City Honors.

"I take exception to the idea that affluent parents who send their children to Catholic schools should have a right, based off of the fact they are Catholic, that they should have exclusive rights to City Honors," he said during the debate, later adding: "I support City Honors . . .  What I don't support is a lack of diversity. We have Buffalo public school students who are equally qualified . . . "

He went on to say "go to your Catholic schools and have fun saying your Catholic prayers."

Scanlon then "took great exception" to Wingo's characterizaton of Catholic school parents as "affluent," saying his own parents  – like many others – sacrificed to send their children to Catholic schools.

"My parents were not affluent," Scanlon said. "They sacrificed."

Wingo's comments elicited a gasp  Tuesday from some audience members. A backlash then erupted on social media after Wingo's comments were published on the Buffalo News website, and then reposted at least two dozen times by Facebook users.

"Did you see what Masten Councilmember Wingo said during his attempt to integrate City Honors,"  Mike Blake, 45, of South Buffalo, asked on his Facebook post. "He should issue a public apology. He referred to South Buffalo parents who send their kids to Catholic schools as 'affluent' and made fun of their religion."

Some of the pushback was also on Wingo's Facebook page.

"I just think assuming all of the people that send their kids to private school are making big incomes is irresponsible,"  Erin Moran, also of South Buffalo, wrote on Wingo's Facebook page. ". . . I agree that admissions to a school like City Honors should be an even playing field. I just think the language we use should not assume anything about a party that disagrees. Assumption closes conversations and we need far more conversation to make a lasting impact on the education system in this city."

During Tuesday's Council meeting, Wingo asked his colleagues to refer the City Honors admissions policy issue to the Education Committee he chairs, for further discussion.

The move passed by a 6-3 vote, with Golombek, Scanlon and University District Councilman Rasheed N.C. Wyatt objecting.

Wyatt addressed another portion of Wingo's resolution, which suggested admission policy changes are also needed at Frederick Law Olmsted 156 High School. That school is in Wyatt's district and uses the same admissions process as City Honors.

"This school has been a model to ensure minorities are able to get into the school," Wyatt said of Olmsted 156.

The Education Committee was scheduled to meet Thursday, but the official meeting was cancelled for lack of a quorum.

Scanlon was among the Committee members who chose not to attend.

"I'm not going to the meeting," Scanlon said early Thursday. "He offended me. He offended a large portion of my district and people throughout the city."

In his apology, Wingo spoke of historic disadvantages that communities of color have experienced in Buffalo and the need to create a more representative study body at Buffalo's top-performing schools.

It is wrong, Wingo said, for blacks to be in the minority at the top-performing schools in a predominantly African-American school district.

The Buffalo school district has attempted to address some of the disparity with recent changes, which Wingo said he supports.

Nonetheless, Wingo said, when others on the Council didn't fully support those changes, his comments reflected his frustration rather than his true feelings.

He offered an apology "to anyone whom I offended and or hurt with my words."

"In my zeal for discussion with my colleagues on this very important and sensitive issue, I erred, and my comments are regrettable and unbecoming of who I am and what I stand for," he said.

Scanlon, as well as some of Wingo's Facebook critics, said an apology was appropriate.

So did Council President Darius G. Pridgen.

"It is great if the councilmember feels he needs to apologize," Pridgen said.

"Very positive," said Blake, from South Buffalo, of Wingo's apology.

This isn't the first time the freshman lawmaker has kicked up dust on the Council.

Wingo in February was a vocal supporter of the Buffalo woman who alleged that she lost custody of her two children because the district failed to properly process her homeschooling paperwork for them.

The district denied the charge and said Kiarre Harris' problems with Child Protective Services started before she filed the homeschooling papers. The case remains in Family Court.

Wingo also attracted attention in September when he raised his fist in silent protest during the Pledge of Allegiance at the start of a Council meeting. His protest against police killings nationally of African-Americans continued for several weeks.

At one point during his protest, Wingo received racist hate mail.

Scanlon publicly came to Wingo's defense. Addressing the Council, Scanlon said that while he didn't agree with Wingo's use of the pledge to protest racial injustice, he did agree that racial injustice exists.

Anyone who doesn't acknowledge that, Scanlon said, is either "ignorant or blind."

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