May school board elections could go either way

Political observers who follow school board politics are already postulating scenarios for next year’s May election, when six of nine board members will be up for reelection. It will be a pivotal moment, in one of two directions. The education reformers could defend, and perhaps even enlarge their majority. Or the teachers unions — who are well off and well organized — could assert their political machine, which has grown worn, arthritic, and tired in recent years.

Carl Paladino’s majority will defend three of six district seats the bloc now holds: Paladino in the Park District (South Buffalo); Jay McCarthy in the North District; and James Sampson in the West District.

The Buffalo Teachers’ Federation is expected to back the incumbent members of the minority voting bloc: Sharon Belton-Cottman in the Ferry District; Theresa Harris-Tigg in the East District; and Mary Ruth Kapsiak in the Central District.

The Buffalo Teachers’ Federation and their gruff political operative, Mike Deely, are expected to spend big money on the races — which will be seen as a statewide bellwether that will either endorse or reject the Cuomo Administration’s handling of education policies. If union-backed candidates retake the board majority, the election would be seen as a devastating Cuomo defeat.

Paladino has publicly suggested that he may back challengers in the three Eastside seats where he looks to grow his board majority. Sam Radford, the high profile parent activist, is thought to be naturally aligned with the “education reformers,” as they are derisively called by the cadre of teachers who regularly attend board meetings.

It is interesting that Paladino and Cuomo will have an alignment of interests for the first time.

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The teachers unions are expected to run a challenger in the North District, where Jay McCarthy is popular and has been elected by strong margins twice before. Board meeting regular Larry Scott, who some call a union ideologue, is seen as angling for a run. He ran once before but was defeated badly.

In the West District, James Sampson will likely benefit from his recent feud with Paladino. Paladino has called for Sampson’s resignation as President of the Board “because he is a liberal.” Some distance from Paladino will help Sampson in the West District, which includes the Westside west of Richmond Avenue, Blackrock, and Riverside. No challengers to Sampson have emerged. Three years ago he was won the district narrowly.

In South Buffalo’s Park District former Paladino opponent Adrian Fitzgerald Harris has said privately that he is unlikely to run. Paladino is thought to have a lock on South Buffalo politics and it would be unlikely that the BTF could field a candidate who can make the race competitive.

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The Ferry District, which comprises much of the Masten and University Heights areas, presents an interesting scenario. Sharon Belton-Cottman holds the seat and has strong support among women voters and those aligned with Unity Coalition, an Eastside political club founded by Arthur Eve. But Grassroots, the political club founded by Maurice Garner and credited for electing Mayor Byron Brown, is postured against Belton Cottman, who narrowly lost a Common Council race against Grassroots-backed Ulysses Wingo. Could similar political alignments foreshadow a battle for the school district?

The Central District comprises Allentown, the lower Westside, the Fruit Belt, Jefferson Avenue, and Downtown and is represented by longtime board member and former board president Mary Ruth Kapsiak. She has not yet announced whether she will seek reelection. Some names have been chatted about in political circles about who might take the seat, including former Family Court candidate Michelle Brown.

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The East District is represented by Dr. Harris-Tigg, who is on the faculty of Buffalo State College. It is unclear whether a challenger will emerge for the seat.

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