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Lessons from 2004 Buffalo school election: 'It was a little rocky'

There are lessons to be learned from the last time all nine seats on the Buffalo Board of Education were on the ballot.

It was 2004, and the election was widely viewed as crucial to Buffalo Public Schools – and the city.

The election turned over two-thirds of the School Board, and sent the school system in a new direction.

The job of board members – which already comes with a steep learning curve – was made harder with so many new faces and personalities sitting around the board table in Room 801 of City Hall.

“In the beginning, it was a little rocky,” said Ralph Hernandez, a former School Board president who won his first election in 2004.  “Everyone was trying to learn each other, and in order for the board to function correctly, people have to sort of like each other and if that’s not there, it creates trying times.”

This year's election in May is the first time since 2004 that all of the seats are up again. The five-year at large seats and three-year district seats expire at the same time only once every 15 years.

Like 2004, this year's School Board election will be an interesting one to watch  – particularly if the city school system is going to continue moving forward, said Samuel L. Radford III, a parent advocate and close observer of Buffalo school board politics over the past 20 years.

“I think we really are at a serious crossroads,” said Radford, president of the District Parent Coordinating Council, a district parent group. “It really matters who the new board is. I think we could have a potentially great board, because you have a lot of people who are close to what’s happening. But you also have a lot of inexperienced people.”

While the candidates have changed from 15 years ago, many of the issues have not.

In 2004, everyone was talking about charter schools, the district was locked in contract talks with teachers, and two days after the election the superintendent announced her early retirement.

Fast forward to 2019 and charters are still a hot topic, teachers will be heading back to the bargaining table and Superintendent Kriner Cash is nearing the end of his contract.

Hernandez recalled how school discipline, the lack of parent involvement and union dealings were frequent topics of discussion – same as now.

Increasing high school graduation rates and lowering suspensions among African-American males were common themes heard among parents, said Betty Jean Grant, who won a seat on the School Board in 2004.

“It’s the same thing now,” Grant said.

Eight of the nine School Board seats were contested and 20 candidates jumped into the fray.

“It was a much more interesting race based on the fact that all the seats were up and, in the districts, most of the races were hotly contested,” said Rev. Kinzer Pointer, who lost an at-large bid in 2004.

Hot issues didn't boost turnout

Similar to this year, the school board's president at the time chose not to seek re-election leaving a large void on the board. In the West District, both candidates managed to knock each other off the ballot, making for a wide open write-in campaign.

Meanwhile, then-Superintendent Marion Canedo had laid out a sweeping reform plan to create a broad network of district-sponsored charter schools, which would dramatically alter the face of public education in Buffalo.

“The issues were charter schools and charter schools,” Pointer said. “That was all anybody wanted to talk about.”

In fact, the charter school issue riled up the teachers union, which organized and blitzed its members with automated phone calls urging them to support candidates who receive the union’s endorsement.

But as usual, the turnout at the polls was low, described at the time as “pathetic," ushering in six newcomers to the nine-member board – none of whom still serve today.

They included Grant, who would later be appointed to the Erie County Legislature; Chris Jacobs, now a State Senator; Catherine Collins, now a member of the Board of Regents; Florence Johnson, the top-vote getter; and Hernandez, who claimed victory in the West District with less than 300 write-in votes.

As result, the election was widely considered a referendum for both the landmark charter initiative, which fizzled, and Canedo, who two days after the election announced plans to retire early to spend more time with her family.

More schools in 'good standing'

Radford agrees with many of the parallels between 2004 and 2019.

But he also believes there are some important differences.

The school district has been in better financial shape in recent years compared to 2004, when it faced an ongoing fiscal crisis that had become particularly acute after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Radford said.

And back then, nearly half the city’s public schools had been cited by the state or federal governments for low test scores.

These days, 38 of 50 schools were proclaimed in "good standing" by the state in January while the number of city schools in state receivership has decreased from 25 to three.

“This is the first election where we have a superintendent that essentially has stabilized us in all the major metrics and at least moved us in the right direction,” Radford said of Cash. “This is the first election where the superintendent is not part of the referendum.”

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