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Published in Print: May 12, 2004, as Newcomers Elected to Buffalo School Board

Newcomers Elected to Buffalo School Board

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As a result of an election last week, two-thirds of the members of the Buffalo, N.Y., school board will be newcomers with a range of views on the district’s plan to sponsor a network of charter schools. The shift creates uncertainty about the margin of support for the nationally watched initiative.

The May 4 ballot saw all nine seats up for grabs, a phenomenon that occurs once every 15 years in Buffalo because of the way the election cycles are structured. The current board unanimously backs a plan to approve and oversee a group of new charter schools.

Buffalo is seen as unusually aggressive in deciding to court and sponsor its own charter schools. The 43,000-student district has sponsored one so far, but plays geographic host to eight others sponsored by the state. Board members reasoned that it was better to develop and influence the district’s own charter schools than have a growing number overseen by others. They’ve also seen the move as expanding choice for parents. ("Buffalo Board Votes to Court Charter Schools," Jan. 7, 2004.)

Three incumbents who support the charter school initiative kept their seats in last week’s election. The six newcomers include some who favor the plan and some who oppose it, but not all have stated clear positions on the issue.

The new board, whose members take office in July, appears certain to face a period of debate about how it should proceed with charter schools.

Board President Jack Coyle, who retained his seat, said last week that he hoped to help convince skeptical new members that charter schools are in the best interests of the district and its students.

"I know the new members will listen with open minds because they put kids first," he said.

The Buffalo Teachers Federation has strongly opposed charter schools, contending that the district is badly hurt when state education money follows each student who decides to leave a regular public school for a charter school.

Union Activism

The Buffalo district, New York state’s second largest, faces a projected $20 million deficit in its $500 million-plus budget for fiscal 2005, which could lead to a reduction in the teaching staff and cuts in instructional programs. District officials have said that about $24 million of the fiscal 2004 budget went to the nine charter schools in Buffalo.

The 3,800-member union, an affiliate of the National Education Association, was unusually active in the school board race, endorsing candidates for all eight of the contested seats in an attempt to build opposition on the panel to charter school expansion. Five of the candidates it favored won seats.

"The message is clear: There is a substantial number of people that think charter schools are not desirable," said union President Philip Rumore.

Mr. Rumore said he was gratified to see that the newly elected board includes several members who are skeptical of or opposed to the district’s sponsorship of charter schools.

"At least what we have now is dialogue," he said. "We didn’t have that before."

Incumbent Denise Hanlon ran unopposed. The other eight seats were contested.

According to election results that were still unofficial late last week, incumbents Florence Johnson and Mr. Coyle retained their seats, and newcomers Vivian O. Evans, Betty Jean Grant, Ralph R. Hernandez, Catherine Collins, Janique S. Curry, and Christopher L. Jacobs joined the board.

Three incumbents had chosen not to run again.

Vol. 23, Issue 36, Page 3

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