BTF-endorsed at-large members sweep School Board election

May 8, 2019

When the Buffalo School Board assembles in early July to elect its officers, there will be four new members around the nine-member table.

There was a celebration in the back room of the Wellington Pub on Hertel Avenue, cheering significant victories in Tuesday's School Board election.

All four board members who ran unopposed won re-election. They include the Ferry District's Sharon Belton-Cottman, the North District's Hope Jay, the West District's Jennifer Mecozzi and the Central District's Paulette Woods.

Incumbent Louis Petrucci ran against Austin Harig in the Park District, but the incumbent came out on top. Kathy Evans-Brown, a project director with the Buffalo Urban League, was the winner in the East District against Patricia Elliott.

"My main reason for running for the school board is for the children," Evans-Brown said. "Kids are number one in my life and I want to continue that legacy so that some of our improverished students who come from crime-ridden neighborhoods and poverty-ridden neighborhoods get a fair share and get equal access to a good education."

Also winners were three at-large candidates backed by the Buffalo Teachers Federation: Terrance Heard, Ann Rivera and Larry Scott. All have school ties: Rivera as a department chair at Villa Maria, Heard as a former teacher and assistant team leader for General Motors and Scott as a school psychologist in Ken-Ton Schools and a co-founder of the Buffalo Parent Teachers Organization.

Scott said city schools need more psychologists to help students.

"Compared to our suburban districts, we talk a lot about restorative practices and we talk a lot about trauma-informed care, but if we don't have the staff to be implementing those programs, those supports, those services and directly having those interactions with students, then that work is really just going to be something that's in a book, in a policy." 

Rivera said with support, students can have success.

"As an educator of over 20 years, working with students who are generally diagnosed with learning differences, often at risk, often educationally underserved, as well as my advocacy in the district as a SEPAC (Special Education Parents Advisory Council) member and then Chair of SEPAC, I truly believe and I've seen as an educator myself that, when we support our students in a wholistic kind of way, they can achieve academic success," she said.

Heard said the school system did not seem to get the word out that there was an election.

"The School Board, the particular amount of people who think about the School Board race and comes out to vote, those people who really care about the community and who really care about what's going on, I heard a number of people that we met, they came out and said they didn't know the school board was running, that the school board election was today, and people were actually surprised," Heard told WBFO.

Voter turnout was something of a moral victory, arguing that the over 10-percent turnout in South Buffalo was good and the similar turnout in the North District showed the public is concerned about the school system. The final numbers are a week or so away, although figures are not expected to get much larger.

In the most indicative races, nearly 24,000 votes were cast in the eight-candidate fight over the three at-large seats and voting was varied. In a struggle for the East District seat, 847 votes were cast, while Hope Jay, running without opposition, received 1,760 votes in the North District.

Jeff Conrad lost in his quest for an at-large seat. Conrad said the low turnout hurt his candidacy.

"Turnout was extraordinarily low and there were a few things that on our end we thought there would be a higher turnout in South Buffalo, with a contested race, and in some areas where there were no contested race, like in North, the turnout was actually relatively high," Conrad said.

For years, there has been a push to shift the date of the election and it will come up again in Albany this session, hoping to find a date that would persuade people to show up to vote. One possibility is the day all suburban budget votes take place.

Erie County Republican Elections Commissioner Ralph Mohr said that would work, even if there are a lot of voting machines working in the suburbs.

"Have them at one particular high school or very limited number of locations, that we have multiple machines to accomodate the flow," Mohr said. "If the school board elections in the City of Buffalo plus the suburban districts were held on the same day, there wouldn't be any problem with staffing or with supplying the machines and supplies."

Other possibilities include the poitical primary day in June or the November general election day. Mohr said June is problematic because not all political parties hold primaries.

Petrucci said moving the vote to a political election day might damage the regional bipartisan effort that has supported the district.

"My recommendation would be to put it in line with the suburban school districts," he said. "I know there are other people that would go with the general, but me, personally, would be with the suburban districts."

Incumbent Belton-Cottman said she wants to get the new members up to speed quickly.

There are various training programs, based around college and university campuses, for those new school board members to explain what they have gotten themselves into. The programs cover everything from who the school system's administrators are to explaining how the budget system works.

Belton-Cottman said there is a lot to learn very quickly and it is necessary.

"What took a long time to understand the enormity of it - it's enormous, it's huge - and my role in it," she said of her own experience. "So what we want to do is make sure board members coming in the door
what their positions are, what their roles are and that they are leading, that the Superintendent reports to the board and not visa versa."

Among the first issues for board members to decide will be what to do about Schools Superintendent Kriner Cash's contract, which runs out next school year.