ALBANY – Election Day for candidates to the Buffalo school board will move from May to the same day in November as other elections under legislation signed into law Monday night.
Backers say the idea, now done in Rochester and Syracuse, will boost low turnout numbers for school board races while saving taxpayers $100,000 associated with adding a special election day just for school elections.
Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Buffalo Democrat, has sponsored the legislation since at least 2011. It passed both houses on the last day of session in June, including the Senate where it was sponsored by Senator Tim Kennedy, a Buffalo Democrat whose party was elevated into majority party status this year.
“Really, really grateful to majority leader Stokes and Tim Kennedy, because I know they did that based on what the community wanted and in the face of union opposition,” said Samuel L. Radford, the longtime parent advocate.
Radford was part of the Change the Date Coalition, a group led by city pastors and business leaders that pushed to change the date of the school board election in hopes of increasing public involvement. Turnout in city school board elections has ranged anywhere from 5% to 14% over the past 15 years.
“The real issue here is the fact that the teachers union has been controlling the election, because they just have so much more money than anyone else in the race,” Radford said. “Now they won’t be the only major player involved in the election of board members because they’re not the biggest voice in the room. Now, you’ve created an equal playing field.”
But critics say it tosses school board candidates into the mix of an assortment of other campaigns – from president to governor to other state and local races – instead of having a unique day set aside in May where voters in Buffalo are able to focus solely on education issues and candidates who will help shape public school policies in the city.
The current system used by nearly all 700 school districts in New York State – with school board elections held on the third Tuesday in May – also allows new board members to be a part of fiscal and other matters before school starts each year instead of joining the board four months into the school session in January. For most districts in the state, the May date coincides with school budget voting day.
Buffalo Teachers Federation President Phil Rumore criticized Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo for signing the legislation on Monday night, and he said Peoples-Stokes and Kennedy were wrong to press for the change that the union leader said will infuse party politics into school board elections.
“It makes it a political decision where the political parties make a decision as to who’s going to get support. That’s not the way it’s supposed to be," Rumore said Monday.
Turnout might be lower in May for school elections, but Rumore said those who do show up to vote are residents who are especially interested in the affairs of the school district. “Just because more people are voting because a political party or parties have endorsed a candidate doesn’t mean it’s better for education," he said of the election date change to November.
To critics who say the May voting date allows the teachers union to have outsized influence in the outcomes at the poll, Rumore said “that’s an insult to the people who vote in education elections."
In fact, earlier this year members of the Buffalo School Board – all of whom were supported by the union – passed a resolution asking the governor not to sign off on the bill changing the date of the election to November.
The change requires candidates elected in the next school board election to take office during the month of January, as opposed to July. They then would have just a few months to learn the complexities of a large urban school district before voting on a $1 billion budget, argued At-large Board Member Larry Scott.
“That, to me, is just going to be a huge challenge,” Scott said.