Williamsville School Board member Toni Vazquez was in the good graces of the district’s teachers’ union three years ago.
She had been the lone member to support the union’s call for an independent investigation into employee complaints of Superintendent Scott Martzloff and was the only incumbent in 2015 to receive the union’s endorsement in her re-election bid.
But in seeking re-election this year, Vazquez was the only incumbent to be denied an endorsement by the Williamsville Teachers Association.
If recent elections are any indication, the snub could spell the end of Vazquez’s six years on the board, including one as president. The endorsement is key because the union since 2015 has a perfect record of helping to elect its preferred candidates. All nine current board members were elected with the WTA’s support.
Voters go to the polls Tuesday to elect three members of the board for Erie County’s largest suburban school district, which has an enrollment of about 10,000 students and a proposed 2018-19 budget of $190 million.
What changed between the union and its one-time staunchest ally?
Neither side disputes that an incident involving Vazquez’s child, a teacher and a subsequent heated exchange is at the core.
But Vazquez says there is more to it. In December, her son and another student were involved in an altercation at Transit Middle School. Vazquez said witnesses saw a teacher who was breaking up the altercation push her son against a wall. The teacher disputed that.
The next day, Vazquez said she and her husband, Dr. Raul Vazquez, met with the principal and teacher when her husband used foul language and said he would “throw [the teacher] out the window if he ever touched my son again.” The principal stopped the meeting, according to Vazquez’s account.
“It was the heat of the moment,” said Toni Vazquez, a medical practice administrator and small-business owner. “It was less than 24 hours since the incident occurred and things got a little heated.”
Cooler heads prevailed in subsequent meetings, she said.
"We came to an agreement on how we would handle things moving forward," she said. "I thought everything was moving peacefully, which it did. The teacher and I shook hands. Everything was fine."
But when time came for the union's endorsement interviews, Vazquez said she was questioned about the incident and asked why she didn't stick up for the teacher.
"I, at that time, told them that I was there as a parent, not as a board member," she said. "They said I don't have the luxury of switching hats – I'm always a board member and I always have to protect teachers over my own son."
A member of the endorsement committee, which is made up of representatives from most of the district's 13 schools, said the incident was one of several factors that led to their decision.
"She went after one of our members, and that was a big deal," said Patty DiPasquale, a teacher at Forest Elementary. "We were very frank with her about that and her lack of understanding and compassion for the teacher that was in question. She didn't seem to understand why he would even be upset by anything."
DiPasquale said Vazquez's support of the union during its rift with Martzloff did not go unnoticed, but it was not enough.
"We do appreciate that she stood up for us and that was a big deal," DiPasquale said. "We understand that. But that was the only thing she came to the table with – 'Look, I did this for you. You have to support me.' And I can't support somebody who is abusing power. I mean, that was the whole issue we had with the superintendent. We questioned whether or not he was abusing his power. For her to do the same thing — it's just not being a good leader."
'Web of lies'
Vazquez doesn't buy the union's explanation that the Transit Middle meeting was the reason she lost the union's support.
"Why would they blame me for something my husband said?" she said. "I didn't say it. I maintained professionalism throughout the entire meeting, every meeting I've had."
Vazquez said she believes there's an ulterior reason she was passed over for an endorsement. In 2014 she was the lone board member to support the idea that the board should conduct an independent investigation into allegations made by teachers and principals that Martzloff had shown a pattern of “retaliatory behavior” and “favoritism.”
She was even pressed to resign because of her support for an investigation into the complaints, leading one union official at the time to say, “We had hoped that she could be a voice of reason on the board going forward. Unfortunately, it appears as though her reasonable and fair-minded voice may be silenced.”
A hearing officer's decision last year vindicated Martzloff and found a former assistant superintendent, Kim Kirsch, guilty of insubordination, misconduct and other charges. The decision showed union President Michelle Licht and Kirsch worked together behind Martzloff's back in an effort to have him ousted by the board through a contract buyout.
Vazquez said she confronted Licht when the hearing decision was made public and accused Licht of misleading her about the allegations.
"They had malicious intent from the very start, and they brought us all into this web of lies," Vazquez told The Buffalo News in an interview. "I said, 'How dare you lie to me all these years. I went through so much defending these allegations and trying to get an independent, impartial investigation.' "
Vazquez even used a portion of her opening statement during a candidates' forum last week to blast the WTA and Licht specifically.
"I did not receive the WTA endorsement this year because I adamantly refused to be their puppet," she said at the forum. "Although I was in favor of an independent, impartial investigation, I was never on board for a coup. When I refused, I became a foe of the WTA leadership."
Vazquez said she believes it was that confrontation with Licht last year that cost her the union's endorsement this year, adding that Licht is "adamantly against me now." Licht denied that.
"I think it's unfortunate that Mrs. Vazquez thinks that's it's personal or that it's any reflection on the work she's done as a board member," said Licht, who was not a voting member of the committee. "The committee took into account the records of all the incumbents and what the newcomers had to bring to the table. And the committee really chose the three people who they thought would be best on the board."
The union announced its preferred candidates last week, unanimously endorsing incumbents Shawn P. Lemay and Mark Mecca, as well as newcomer Eric Borenstein, a retired performing arts executive who ran symphony orchestras around the country.
Meanwhile, the three remaining candidates joined forces this week to offer themselves as an alternative to the union's slate. Robert Campo, Dawn M. Fletch and Michael J. Littman are former PTA presidents from three schools in the district.
Campo, an instructor at Erie Community College and former East High School PTA president, said his slate should not be thought of as "anti-teacher."
"We're pro-teacher," he said, "but we're also pro-parent and we're pro-student and we're pro-taxpayer. We think there has to be an equitable balance, and we don't think the union candidates offer our community an equitable balance. We have to take all the various aspects of our community into account."
Fletch is a new business development manager and recruiter for AP Professionals of Western New York, while Littman is chairman of the business department at SUNY Buffalo State and a former Williamsville Board of Education president.
Their platform includes increased transparency in decision making, increased school safety and security, increasing foreign language offerings to include Mandarin and starting it at the elementary level.
"There's no checks and balances," Campo said. "There's no way to protect the taxpayers, there's no way to protect the parents. There has to be a system where everyone's opinion matters."
A controversial figure
Both sides agree that Vazquez has not been afraid to take unpopular stances during her time on the board. She made headlines most recently for her failed proposal last year to change Columbus Day on the district calendar to Indigenous Peoples Day. Vazquez often promotes policies that increase diversity and inclusion for minorities in the district. It was not so long ago that she received a standing ovation from the district's teachers during an opening day ceremony.
"I think all the members of the WTA are very appreciative of what Mrs. Vazquez has done for us in the past," said Licht. "The committee who made the endorsements was really looking for what the candidates could bring to the table in the future."
Vazquez said she is concerned about her chances of winning re-election Tuesday, given the union's track record of success in mobilizing its members to vote and the palm cards and signs that go with an endorsement.
"I know that I have a lot of name recognition and I want people to hear my story and know what's going on and know the truth," she said. "Hopefully that will count for something."