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Youthful infusion makes mark on area school boards

Dwight Eagan alternated between sips of Tim Hortons and a cup of water. The agenda for the Orchard Park School Board was short and mostly mundane on a Tuesday evening in April: a bond anticipation note, a handful of substitute teacher appointments, a $2,511 donation to the Middle School.

But there also was the substantial matter of approving a 2017-18 district budget to give to residents for an up-or-down vote. It's a $98 million responsibility shared by seven board members. And one of them is Eagan, a 20-year-old University at Buffalo legal studies major who is just three years removed from roaming the Orchard Park High School hallways as a student.

Eagan doesn't take the responsibility lightly. But he's not daunted by it.

"I put my name in for the position because I wanted it and also because I knew I could handle it," he said.

And he's not alone. A youth movement has propelled at least five teenagers to victory in recent school board elections across Western New York.

The young people currently serving on school boards attend the University at Buffalo as full-time students. They are smart, studious and serious beyond their years. They're also adding a huge credential to already stacked resumes.

The Cheektowaga-Sloan district had two UB undergraduates, David Vohwinkel and Sean Kaczmarek, on its board in 2016 until Kaczmarek left to do graduate study in England. Vohwinkel's term runs through 2020.

The youngest current board member is Gunnar J. Haberl, who won a seat on the Iroquois School Board in Elma in 2016 at age 18. Haberl is a UB sophomore studying political science.

In addition, UB Law School student Davis Podkulski is on the board of Frontier Central School District. Podkulski first won election in 2014, while he was a 19-year-old undergraduate at UB.

Tuesday's elections presented the opportunity for more collegiate board members, but a West Seneca teenager and a UB student from Amherst both lost their election bids.

In 32 years on staff at the New York State School Boards Association, Jay Worona said he's never heard of so many college students serving at one time in such a concentrated area of the state. It's rare enough that a single college student would be elected, said Worona, deputy executive director and general counsel for the statewide organization.

"We don't see it all that often," he said. "Kids are busy. They're doing other things."

Worona said it will be interesting to see if Western New York is on the vanguard of a new trend, with more young people gravitating toward heavy duty public service like school board duty. The posts don't pay a salary and demands a significant time commitment.

"It is kind of an altruistic thing to do," he said.

Claire M. Ferrucci wishes young people like Vohwinkel and Kaczmarek were more the rule than the exception. Ferrucci has served for 28 years on the Cheektowaga-Sloan board. She's currently board president.

"We need young people involved so people like me can retire," she said.

Ferrucci described Vohwinkel and Kaczmarek as "good guys" who have been assets to the district and to other board members.

"They didn't do it just to make their resumes better," she said. "Sean and David wanted to make things better for kids in the high school, and they did."

Valedictorian and trailblazer

Kaczmarek blazed a trail in Cheektowaga in 2013, when he defeated a longtime incumbent school board member to become the youngest person to hold a seat on the Cheektowaga-Sloan board.

He was 19 and a freshman at UB. Kaczmarek decided to run after his younger sister, who was a student at John F. Kennedy High School at the time, came home one day complaining that the district would no longer allow the high school to sponsor an event that students enjoyed.

Kaczmarek made a half-joking remark that he should run. His father, Thomas, a postal worker, encouraged him to consider it. Kaczmarek went to a series of board meetings to scope it out. He declared for the post and won handily, setting the board on its ear.

Some people, he said, were "wary of a 19-year-old kid" who didn't pay school taxes because he doesn't own property. Kaczmarek was class valedictorian in 2012, but the distinction didn't help much with other board members. At least early on, he would give an opinion and nobody seemed to listen.

"I never felt ostracized. They never made me feel like I didn't belong there," he said. "It was just a reluctance to believe me."

The dynamic changed in time, and with Vohwinkel's election, the idea of a board member fresh out of high school "was much more normalized," he said.

Kaczmarek commuted to UB from his parent's home and juggled his board responsibilities with another elected position, vice president of UB's Student Association. He's now studying social policy at University College in London on a Marshall Scholarship and expects to pursue a career in education or education policy when he returns to the U.S.

He said the interest by young people in running for school board posts may be a reaction to broader social, economic and political trends.

"We didn't grow up in the greatest economic times," Kaczmarek said.

Many young people are frustrated and feel they need to do something to make changes.

"For people who want to do that, school boards are the closest thing to them," he said.

Juggling jobs, studies and board duties

Kaczmarek's victory opened the door for his friend Vohwinkel, who was valedictorian in 2013 at JFK, to run for a seat on the board in 2014.

Vohwinkel was motivated by his own experience as a student, when teacher positions were eliminated and various extracurricular programs were cut during a budget crisis. Vohwinkel's said his participation in theater at JFK helped draw him out of his shell. He was concerned that other students would not have those same opportunities, if the district continued to cut extracurricular programs, which he believes help motivate kids to do well in class.


David Vohwinkel, a University at Buffalo student, serves on the Cheektowaga Sloan School Board. (Harry Scull Jr. / Buffalo News)

Among those kids are Vohwinkel's own siblings: a sister who graduated in 2015, another sister who will be part of next year's graduating class, and a brother who is on track to graduate from high school in 2020.

Vohwinkel consulted with Kaczmarek about running for a seat. Kaczmarek's primary advice was: "If you don't like reading, don't do it."

Two years in and Vohwinkel concurs: It's a lot of reading, at least a few hours of board material for each meeting, and most of it not scintillating prose by any means.

"It's time consuming. It's challenging. But at the same time, it's rewarding to be part of the community and to provide a perspective that I thought was missing from the board," he said.

Vohwinkel, a psychology major, hopes to get into UB's dental school after he graduates in December. He commutes to campus and lives at home with his parents and siblings, while also working part-time jobs as a UB teaching assistant, as a dental assistant off campus and as a clerk at Kohl's department store. He uses the money to pay tuition and living expenses.

"I don't want to take out any loans," he said.

Vohwinkel usually wears a tie and jacket to board meetings inside Woodrow Wilson School. He once attended classes in this elementary school building.

His principal was Andrea Galenski, the current district superintendent. Galenski sits a just few feet away from Vohwinkel in the small room board with a water cooler near the door.

Vohwinkel maintains a quiet reserve at the meetings, but he's well known in the district, especially at the high school.

"He's really well respected at JFK. Everybody thinks it's pretty admirable that he graduated and right away joined the school board," said Kelly Glowny, a JFK senior who serves as vice president of the student council.

Glowny said Vohwinkel's tenure on the board has made her consider the possibility of running for a seat someday.

"My siblings and I talk about it all the time. It's definitely inspiring," she said.

'They think you get paid a lot'

Eagan was the top vote-getter last year in a three-way race for two seats on the Orchard Park board.

At the April meeting, he wore a snappy blue blazer and horn-rimmed glasses. He was seated next to fellow board member Robert Mahany, who also happens to be the father of one of Eagan's former teammates on the high school varsity soccer squad.

They started on the board at the same time. Mahany sometimes wonders how Eagan manages to stay on top of board matters while maintaining a full course load at UB. But Eagan is as professional and earnest about the work as any board member, Mahany said in an interview.

"There's no way I could have pulled that off at his age, years ago," he said. "It's kind of funny that, yeah, I could be sitting next to my son at the board meetings. I don't know if that's amazing because he's so young or because I'm so old."

Eagan lived on UB's North Campus his freshman year. As a sophomore, he moved back home to save money and spend more time with his tight-knit family. He's the oldest of five siblings, and he often drives his brothers and sisters to school functions, practices and games. The urge to run for the school board came from talking to people at soccer practices.

"I just saw it as a position I could get involved in and really give back to the community and have a say," he said.

Eagan is scheduled to graduate in December, a semester early, and hopes to attend UB Law School.

Will the school board be a stepping stone to a higher office? Eagan won't rule it out. He says he's already been mistaken on campus for holding some other elected post.

"Some people hear through the grapevine that I've been elected and people I'll bump into will call me councilman or mayor or other things," he said. "And they think you get paid a lot for this."

From student government to school board

As a student at Iroquois High School, Haberl was known to everyone as "Gunnar." He was the student government president and captain of the varsity soccer squad. So it was awkward when he first returned to the school after his election victory in 2016.

Students and faculty weren't sure what to call him anymore.

"My former teachers didn't know: Are you Mr. Haberl or are you Gunnar? That was a little weird," he said.


Gunnar Haberl, a sophomore at the University at Buffalo, serves on the Iroquois Central School District. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Haberl thought about running for school board while he was in high school. But he also had his heart set on studying political science at a university in the Washington, D.C. area. He wanted to be as close as possible to the epicenter of American politics and government. Ultimately, Haberl realized he couldn't really afford it, at least not without taking on huge debt. He enrolled at UB instead and drives back and forth in a 2001 Tiburon between the North Campus and Elma, where he lives at home with his parents and a brother and sister, who are students at Iroquois.

In hindsight, not studying in the nation's capital was a blessing in disguise. It allowed him to pursue the school board seat, which in turn has sparked a new interest at UB in studying education policy.

Some people in Elma weren't impressed with Haberl's decision to run.

"There was a lot of criticism from individuals in the community that might say, 'Well he's in college.' My answer to that is, everyone else on the board has a full-time job. Going to college is my job. It's no different than working in the work place," he said.

Haberl isn't exactly sure why so many young people are choosing to run for school board, but he believes they contribute a valuable perspective in those board rooms.

"I think my generation is starting to realize what kind of impact you can have, and experience and age aren't the same thing," he said. "Just because your 18 or 19 or 20 in some cases, doesn't mean you can't have the same, if not more, of an impact that those who are 50 or 60."

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