Bill to Change Buffalo School Board Elections Fails Again

5:41 PM, Jun 24, 2013   |    comments
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BUFFALO, N.Y. -- For the third year in a row, a bill that would move Buffalo's school board election to November passed the State Senate but did not get a vote in the Assembly.

Senator Mark Grisanti, R-60th District, is sponsor of the bill, which he says would increase turnout and also save a lot of money.

As for turnout, it's usually only 4-5% for a school board election in Buffalo. This year, it spiked to 8% due to the candidacy of Carl Paladino. But Democratic Elections Commissioner Dennis Ward still described that turnout as "dismal."

Money-wise, Ward said the most recent election in early May cost about $120,000, money that would be completely saved if the vote moved to November, because it would be on the same day as the general election.

Opponents, including the New York State United Teachers, say a November election would inject partisan politics into the school board election. They also worry about new board members starting their terms in the middle of the school year.

On those points, Ward said the school board races could be printed on the back of the ballot along with non-partisan referendums. He said the races could stay non-partisan. And Grisanti said boards in Rochester and Syracuse have November elections and have not had problems starting terms in the middle of the school year.

All Western New York senators voted for the bill, with the exception of Tim Kennedy. It's ironic because Kennedy previously co-sponsored the bill and voted for it twice.

His critics say pressure from the teacher's union caused him to flip flop. NYSUT donated $10,500 to Kennedy over the past year.

Kennedy's office released the following response to 2 On Your Side:

What changed is the deeper research into the new legislation. Each year, we review every piece of legislation we sponsor or cosponsor, and look into how our bills can be improved.

After this process, Senator Kennedy introduced the new bill (S.5633) this year.

Critics of the November elections in Syracuse and Rochester say it has politicized the process and the schools. It now matters more if you're a Democrat or Republican, than if you have a vision or expertise in best practices for a school system.

School board members should be selected based on vision, plans or expertise -- not their political party affiliation.

Maintaining elections in May and aligning Buffalo's elections with the rest of the county will further minimize the already minimal cost of keeping our school board elections de-politicized. This is an effort to keep politics out of our schools and prevent corporate donors from manipulating what should be a non-political process of school board elections, while at the same time enhancing voter turnout.

We also remain concerned that the mid-year turnover will be a distraction for administrators and teachers that may end up affecting classroom instruction. Certainty and long-term planning lead to better schools and improved student performance, not mid-year upheaval and political distractions.

We do anticipate an increase in voter participation, since the media will be delivering one loud message to the community: your school board election is on the third Tuesday in May, regardless of where you live. Voter participation increases when media coverage is ramped up and simplified. With the widespread coverage of candidates in this year's elections, turnout increased by 70 percent across the city, according to a Buffalo News analysis.



Statement from NYSUT:

NYSUT applauds the sponsors of this legislation for their efforts to increase voter participation in school elections.  However, the decision to change the date of an election should be determined by voter referendum. School districts should have the opportunity to maintain their tradition and retain control over their elections if they vote to do so. The Legislature should not disregard this and instead should allow the citizens of Buffalo to make the change.

Moving the school board elections to November may create a political and partisan process, especially when voters don't approve the change. During this time, candidates running would have to spend a considerable amount of money in order to gain name recognition and support. The candidates would face significant campaign costs, whether for signs, posters, or buttons and would ultimately have to cater to political parties to get elected.

In Rochester, elections are held in November and school board candidates usually have a party affiliation; their school board consists of all Democrats. This is largely the result of the fact that their City has three Democrats for every one Republican. Consequently, the winner of the Democratic primary is virtually guaranteed to win the general election in November. However, before the primary, interested Democrats usually seek the party's designation. Candidates (and incumbents) have to go to the party leaders in order to get the Committees' designation and support.

This legislation may also deter and hamper the ability of ordinary citizens who care about their school and school community from running for public school office.

Lastly, placing school board races on the general election ballots could be cumbersome and very confusing, especially in election districts that can encompass more than three school districts.

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