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Which groups are 'in' or 'out' in Buffalo's School Board election?

Now comes the time for outside groups to start choosing up sides in the race for the Buffalo Board of Education, although a big part of the business community has decided to sit this one out.

Outside money from educational reform groups has yet to show up, as well.

In some prior races, both had helped balance the influence wielded by the powerful teachers union, which again stands ready to mobilize its members in support of the union’s endorsed candidates. This time, the union may not have that opposition.

That's how the election of 2019 is shaping up.

While this may be a big year for the Buffalo School Board – all nine seats are on the May 7 ballot – it also has lacked some of the overarching tension that has defined past races.

No revolution has emerged to try to force sweeping reforms in the Buffalo Public Schools, like in 2014. There’s no coup to overthrow the School Board majority, which occurred two years later. Nor is it turning out to be a referendum on district leadership, as happened the last time all nine seats were on the ballot in 2004.

In fact, four of the five incumbents seeking re-election are unopposed.

One theory for the placid election environment: signs of progress in the often-troubled urban school system. The stability and direction under Superintendent Kriner Cash has taken some of the edge off the usual election rhetoric over control of the School Board.

“It’s like a team,” said Samuel L. Radford III, president of a Buffalo parent group and a longtime observer of district politics. “When a team is losing and things are going bad, you fight about every little thing.

“When you’re winning,” Radford said, “you don’t want to fight, you want to do whatever it takes to keep winning – especially when it’s for our children.”

But it is an election, after all, and there’s still time for plenty of political drama between now and May 7, when voters go to the polls.

So who’s in and who’s out?

Here’s a closer look at some of the forces at work behind the election:

In: The Buffalo Teachers Federation

The BTF long has been active in Buffalo School Board races going back at least three or four decades, since Philip Rumore has been its president.

Rumore is open about the union having recruited candidates over the years or helping circulate petitions or printing campaign signs or, most importantly, mobilizing teachers behind those it has endorsed.

But Rumore’s involvement also has long fueled criticism and perception by some that a union endorsement gives the BTF, at most, a rubber stamp at the table, or at the very least, favor with board members.

“That’s just talk. They can say that all they want, but it’s not true,” Rumore said. “Just because you endorse somebody doesn’t mean they’re going to do what they want you to do.”

“No way,” agreed Board Member Paulette Woods, who received the BTF endorsement to represent the Central District.

Woods, in fact, said it was iffy that she would even receive union backing, based on her differing points of view on some issues, like school receivership or student testing, for example.

“You shouldn’t be anti-teachers,” Woods said, “but you certainly shouldn’t be controlled by them.”

Endorsed by the union this year are: Larry Scott, a school psychologist; Terrance Heard, a former teacher; and Ann Rivera, an associate English professor, all running for at-large seats.

Also endorsed were newcomer Kathy Evans Brown in the East District and incumbent Lou Petrucci in the Park District. In addition, the union endorsed four other incumbents running unopposed: Woods; Sharon Belton-Cottman in the Ferry District, Hope Jay in the North District and Jennifer Mecozzi in the West District.

But the old debate over union influence quickly reared its head after a volunteer for Scott’s campaign objected to signatures collected by at-large candidate Jeffrey Conrad.

Scott’s camp said the challenge had nothing to do with the BTF, while Conrad claimed it was an intimidation tactic by Rumore to try to bump him off the ballot.

Conrad said he deliberately avoided the BTF endorsement, because he wanted to remain independent – particularly in a year when teachers are looking for a new contract.

“I think people can still think objectively if they receive the endorsement, but it’s really hard,” Conrad said, “and it’s hard because of the historic perceptions of the BTF getting involved with races and getting involved with politics.”

“If you’re going to get involved with Phil Rumore,” Conrad said, “he’s going to want something in return.”

Out: Buffalo Niagara Partnership

The area’s regional chamber of commerce and privately funded economic development organization has raised concerns about the education of the Western New York workforce and, as a result, has a history of involvement in city School Board elections.

In the last election, for example, the business community backed the reform agenda of the former majority bloc, which included at-large member Larry Quinn, who is not running for re-election.

This year, the partnership decided not to support any specific candidate and issued no endorsements, said Grant Loomis, its vice president of government affairs.

“Every year we evaluate our political engagement, regardless of the races, and make determinations,” Loomis said. “Right now, with regard to the city school district, we’re focused on where we can have the most positive impact and currently that’s making sure the business community is supporting Dr. Cash’s vision for public schools.”

In: Parents

The list of 16 candidates includes five involved with district parent groups.

They include Scott, who is co-chair of the Buffalo Parent-Teacher Organization; Rivera, who chairs the district’s special education parent advisory committee; and Desmond Nalls, Patricia Elliott-Patton and Carolette Meadows, all members of the District Parent Coordinating Council and all running at-large.

Their candidacy for School Board is part of their natural progression as parent leaders, as they’ve become more involved in their children’s education and seasoned on the issues, said Radford, president of the DPCC. Although some parent groups and the teachers union have been at odds in the past, this year some candidates may have the backing of both.

Some parent leaders also have worked together at times, but  haven’t always seen eye to eye. So the politics of getting on the ballot still means it’s every man and woman for themselves.

In fact, one of Scott’s volunteers also challenged signatures submitted by Meadows to try to bump her off the ballot.

In: Democrats

Erie County Democratic Party Chairman Jeremy Zellner said the party has had “very little or next to no” involvement in Buffalo School Board races.

But it was almost unavoidable with this year’s change in Primary Day from September to June and everyone running for elective office hitting the streets at the same time to collect signatures.

Zellner acknowledged a few party loyalists running for School Board, including Scott, Jay and Rivera, benefited in some cases by piggybacking off petitions circulated by party headquarters.

That’s one advantage when trying to collect several hundred signatures in the Buffalo cold.

Out: Reformers

The nonprofit Students First, a national lobbying group promoting education reform and the expansion of charter schools, contributed money to School Board candidates in Buffalo during the last few elections when there was a battle for control of the board.

That money didn’t show up in any of the campaign disclosures filed by candidates earlier this month, although in the past it has appeared in post-election filings.

Students First did not respond to an inquiry asking about its involvement in this year’s School Board election.

In: Organized labor

The local AFL-CIO affiliate doesn’t routinely get involved in School Board races, but did three years ago during a contentious election that saw the organization provide campaign assistance for the endorsed BTF candidates.

This time around, the union endorsed seven of the BTF candidates.

“How much we get involved depends on how the candidates are doing,” said Richard Lipsitz Jr., president of the Western New York Area Labor Federation, AFL-CIO. “I think we’re going to wait and see how things feel in the next week or so.

“We’re not nearly as uptight about the election this spring as we were three years ago,” Lipsitz said. “We think, generally, the direction of the school district is better than it was three years ago and we’d like to see that continue.”

Buffalo School Board candidate alliances

Endorsed by BTF:

Kathy Evans Brown, first-time candidate running for East District

Sharon Belton-Cottman, Ferry District incumbent unopposed

Terrance Heard, first-time candidate running at-large

Hope Jay, North District incumbent unopposed

Jennifer Mecozzi, West District incumbent unopposed

Lou Petrucci, incumbent facing challenge in Park District

Ann Rivera, parent leader running at-large

Larry Scott, parent leader running at-large

Paulette Woods, Central District incumbent unopposed

Parent group candidates:

Carolette Meadows, District Parent Coordinating Council, running at-large

Desmond Nalls, District Parent Coordinating Council, running at-large

Patricia Elliott-Patton, District Parent Coordinating Council, running in East

Ann Rivera, chair of special education parent advisory committee

Larry Scott, co-chair of Buffalo Parent Teacher Organization

Other candidates:

Jeffrey Conrad, running at-large

Austin Harig, challenging in Park District

Tim Hartigan, running at-large

Jack Kavanaugh, running at-large

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