School Board candidates debate education issues

Apr 18, 2014

With the fight over three at-large seats on the Buffalo school board heating up and the election three weeks away, ten of the candidates turned up last night before a large crowd in First Shiloh Baptist Church on Thursday night.

The candidates were asked specific questions like what did they think about "zero tolerance" programs which often lead to student suspensions.

Ten of 15 school board candidates took part in Thursday's debate.
Credit Mike Desmond/wbfo news

"We don't know why these children are acting out in many instances and the teachers don't have access to the files and the information that would help them make the proper decision," said criminal defense lawyer Samuel Davis.

"We have to adjust the way we suspend our children and  discipline our children simply because they are going through so much, they are going through much more than our teachers know, than we know. So, we can't have a zero tolerance policy of our children. That just doesn't work."

Former FBI agent and mayoral candidate Bernie Tolbert says zero tolerance and suspensions put kids on the wrong road.

"We have a school to prison pipeline and that starts when children are suspended from school and that automatically sets them up to get into that pipeline," Tolbert told the audience.

"We've got to find a way to break that. Our future depends on it. So, zero tolerance...they passed some drug laws many years ago, the Rockefeller laws, that were very harsh. And, we found out those didn't work. They were unfair."

Incumbent and lawyer John Licata was more blunt.
"Zero tolerance for any educational institution is simply lunacy. As an educational institution, we are supposed to demonstrate tolerance. We're supposed to demonstrate understanding. We're supposed to reach a solution that just isn't based on retribution, but essentially on salvation. I think I'll use that because we're in a church, here," Licata said.

The questions and answers covered a lot of ground although candidates dodged the district's terrible financial situation.

A television reporter asked why board meetings seemed to get raucous.

A large crowd attended the debate at First Shiloh Baptist Church on Pine Street.
Credit Mike Desmond/wbfo news

"I've been there when the parents speak up," said candidate Wendy Mistretta.

"The process for the speakers right now--for the three-minute (time limit)-- that does not effectively engage the families. I've heard people in the audience say, 'If not now, when?' So, we're not getting our questions answered. There has to be better forums not just with the candidates when they're trying to be elected."  

Bryon McIntyre says  board members are fighting over issues which aren't relevant to academic achievement.

"Some of those things should never have hit the public because they were personnel issues. They should never have  (come to) fruition," McIntyre said.

"The focus needs to be on the children and improving the academics and the curriculums of the children. Diverting the monies to the children. Evaluating the systems we're putting on the children. Seeing that  these things work."

There were suggestions for more public meetings, even Saturday board meetings.

"That's all we do is point fingers," said Sergio Rodriguez, the former mayoral candidate.

"I'm a big believer that every stakeholder in the process--yes, parents, teachers, students themselves, principals, board members, superintendent--we are all responsible equally for the success or  failure of the education system."

Reactions from the audience suggested the often-loud school board meetings weren't what they were looking for in a district where most schools are failing.

The continuing fight over the Common Core learning standards came up, with Stephen Buccilli  saying there needs to be limits on the testing of students.

"Many parents are saying and feeling that there is over-testing going on. While some things are state-mandated, we can change some things and one thing the board needs to do is press the administration to (adopt) policies that address the concerns of our stakeholders, the parents and the  community."

Current Board President Barbara Seals Nevergold says there is a of lot testing in the classrooms.

"Not just the standardized tests, the children are being tested to understand where they are ....diagnostic testing is great because it helps us identify some of the shortcomings and some of the strengths and limitations of children. The standardized tests on the other hand, supposedly the ones they are taking, are really measuring the success of the school or the success of the teachers and not necessarily of the students."

Adrian Harris is a city resident who works in the Lancaster School District and is running for the school board.

"I see that in my own district in Lancaster where two kids came from out of state and (are) having a real difficult time with our curriculum because their curriculum wasn't up to the standards of the New York State curriculum," Harris said.

"I think it's here to stay, but I think it will be modified with the help of parents and educators and all stakeholders."

Both the State Legislature and the Board of Regents are changing the rules for the Common Core and standardized tests.