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Buffalo School Board races revving up amid big issues: Five Things to Know

All nine seats on the Buffalo Board of Education are up once every 15 years – and this is one of those years.

While the discussion will be about educating kids in a large, urban district, be prepared for an intensely political affair with an assortment of interests clamoring to stake a claim at the table between now and the School Board election in May.

For the victors, there's no shortage of issues in front of them, whether it's a teachers union itching for a new contract or a superintendent nearing the end of his. Also awaiting them is a $1 billion budget that just never seems to be enough in a district of more than 33,000 kids, many of whom are poor and struggling academically, but whose success in school is key to Buffalo's future.

There also are disputes over student discipline, racial equity and how dollars are being distributed.

But despite those challenges, candidates are stepping forward.

And in such a big year, there again is a push to increase voter turnout by moving the date of the election — June? November? — but, as in the past, that may have to wait. It would appear to be too late for anything to happen this year.

With that said, here are five things to know:

Who’s in, who’s out: Three of the current board members said they won’t be running for re-election: Barbara Seals Nevergold, the board president; Theresa Harris-Tigg, the two-term East District representative; and at-large board member Patricia Pierce, who won election five years ago as part of a new board majority pushing a reform agenda.

Five other board members are seeking re-election in their districts: Sharon Belton-Cottman in the Ferry District, Hope Jay in the North District, Jennifer Mecozzi in the West District, Lou Petrucci in the Park District and Paulette Woods in the Central District.

Board Member Larry Quinn said he’s not seeking re-election to his at-large seat, which is a five-year term. But Quinn, concerned about the powerful teachers union having a stranglehold on the school district, is considering a challenge to Jay for her seat in the North District, which is for three years. He said he will make a decision by the end of March.

At-large candidates: So far, three have announced their candidacy for the citywide seats. Larry Scott, a parent activist and co-chair of the Buffalo Parent-Teacher Organization, was the first to throw his hat into the ring in October. Following suit were Jeffrey M. Conrad, director of workforce and education for Catholic Charities and a former member of the Buffalo Common Council; and Desmond Nalls, a city Public Works employee and Masten District committeeman.

• Issues to watch: Teachers, whose contract expires at the end of the school year,  want a new deal. A new board also will have to decide whether to offer an extension to Superintendent Kriner Cash, whose contract expires at the end of the 2019-20 school year.

Projected budget deficits also are looming.

Inside the classroom, there's brewing debate over school discipline. There’s pressure to lower suspensions, raise the graduation rate, lower class sizes, diversify the teaching ranks and address the growing number of students learning English as a new language or being placed in special education. All the while, there's increasing scrutiny on racial inequality within the district and a focus on distributing more dollars to the schools that need help most.

“Diversity and equity,” Woods said. “Those are the issues of our time.”

Finances always will be a big concern for the Buffalo School Board, Nevergold said, especially when it comes to affording the reforms targeting academic improvement.

“It will take time for that new group to come together and brand-new members to understand what’s happening,” Nevergold said. “I have concerns about that period of time in which a new board gets itself together.”

• Dates to circle: While campaigns are well underway, candidates will hit the streets Feb. 26, the first day they can start collecting signatures to be on the ballot.

The picture should be clearer by early April, when they have to file with the Erie County Board of Elections.

The election is scheduled for May 7.

Changing the election date: Historically dismal turnouts during Buffalo School Board elections have a coalition of parents, faith-based and community organizations pushing for the date to be changed from May to June to coincide with the state and federal primaries.

The idea of changing the date — which has come up several times before — has gained some traction, as well as an advocate, in Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes. The Buffalo Democrat, however, has submitted a bill to change the date not to June, but to November, to coincide with the general election starting in 2020.

Rochester and Syracuse already hold their school board elections in November, and the change would save Buffalo an estimated $100,000.

But for the change to take effect this year it would have to be passed before candidates start circulating petitions at the end of February, which is "unlikely to happen," said Kevin Jolly, press secretary for Peoples-Stokes.

Jolly said it's unclear just how much support the bill might have from other lawmakers, and how much pushback there will be from the Buffalo Teachers Federation, which is opposed to changing the date.

Stay tuned.

It's that time again: Buffalo schools, teachers head back to bargaining table

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