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The Crowded School Board Race

On May 6, City of Buffalo voters will choose three at-large school board members out of a field of 13 candidates, including two incumbents.

That is, those who bother to show up at the polls will make their choices: The last time we voted for at-large members was in 2009, when just shy of 32,000 voters—less than 20 percent of the city’s enrollment—chose between nine candidates. Of the three winners that year, only one remains: attorney John Licata, who finished with more votes than any other candidate that year. Chris Jacobs, who finished second in 2009, has moved on the Erie County Clerk, while long-time school board member Florence Johnson declined to run for re-election.

Who are the candidates, you ask. What are the factions? What does each support? How should you vote?

We won’t answer the last question, but we can offer some help on the others.

First, a quick overview of the individual candidates, in the order they’ll appear on the ballot:

• As a Republican candidate for mayor of Buffalo last year, Sergio Rodriguez garnered a lot of attention and built citywide name recognition, which should serve him well in this race. As was the case last year, his campaign is largely an independent operation. Yu can check out his platform at sergioforschoolboard.com.

Gizelle Stokes has a master’s degree in social work and is a counselor at King Center Charter School. She claims the support of Grassroots, the Democratic political faction behind Mayor Byron Brown, which shoould come as no surprise: She is the daughter of Geroge Stokes, who is married to Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Grassroots stalwart. You can find her platform at www.gizelle4schoolboard.com.

Stephen Buccilli is an engineer at Watts Archtitecture & Engineering who resides in North Buffalo. You can find his platform at www.buccilliforbuffalo.com.

Barbara A. Nevergold is the current school board president and a retired educator. She has the support of pretty much the entire African-American community, as well as the teachers unions and Stonewall Democrats, in no small part because of her frequent sparring matches with developer Carl Paladino, the board’s Park District representative. She was appointed to the seat she occupies in 2012; this is her first time running a citywide campaign. Read more about her at www.uncrownedcommunitybuilders.com.

Larry Quinn needs little introduction: He’s a polarizing character, for sure, and he doesn’t care which pole you occupy. Quinn, former managing partner of the Buffalo Sabres and chief of economic development for Mayor Jimmy Griffin, is supported by Paladino and a broad swath of the city’s business community. He is not well loved by the unions, in part because of his advocacy for charter school expansion.

Wendy Mistretta has a doctorate in higher education from University at Buffalo. She ran for the North District seat on the school board last year with the support of the District Parent Coordinating Council and lost. She is endorsed by the Stonewall Democrats.

Stephon Wright was the district’s first student representative to the school board. He is currently a student at ECC.

Patti Bowers Pierce is an investigator for Erie County District Attorney and is running with much the same political support network as Quinn. This is her first run for office.

John Licata is an incumbent at-large member of the school board and an attorney for the Erie County Water Authority. He has union support, as well as the endorsement of Stonewall Democrats, and has publicly expressed his support for parents who oppose Common Core requirements. Like Paladino, Licata is very critical of Superintendent Pamela Brown.

Ralph Hernandez is a former district member and past president of the school board; he lost his seat last year when his nominating petition was ruled invail and his name was removed from the ballot. He’s back, and the Buffalo Teachers Federation helped him get on the ballot. The question is whether the strong support he has in the Hispanic community will be enough in a citywide election.

Bernie Tolbert ran for mayor last year as a Democrat, and the thus the former FBI agent and public schools social worker built himself some citywide name recognition. His political support comes from the Unity Coalition, an East Side political group that opposed Grassroots and the mayor.

Adrian Harris ran for the Park District seat on the school board last year and, predictably, was swamped by his opponent, Paladino. He’s a teacher’s aide in Lancaster Central Schools and an all-around good guy whose campaign this year, like last year’s, is largely an exercise in independent politicking.

Samuel P. Davis is a defense attorney who is “of counsel”—that is, affiliated but not on staff—at the politically wired Dolce Panepinto law firm. He is Johnson’s handpicked successor. He claims the support of Grassroots, the Democratic political faction behind Mayor Byron Brown, as well as Citizen Action, which means the teachers unions support him.

Okay, now some politics:

The biggest names on the list are Licata, Nevergold, Quinn, Rodriguez, Tolbert, and perhaps Hernandez. Still, with 13 candidates and so few voters likely to take part, the election is something of a crap shoot.

A few safe observations:

• To win one of the three seats, Quinn must change the typical demographic of school board elections, which tend to draw out members of the teachers unions and a disproportionate number of African-American voters, among whom Quinn’s high name recognition might prove a disadvantage. His supporters, notably Paladino, hope to turn out South Buffalo voters in force. If that works, and if South Buffalo voters like Quinn as much as they like Paladino—two big ifs—then Quinn has a good shot.

• Those typical demographics help Nevergold, especially as Paladino has made the board president his foil: That will make her a hero to some voters. She also enjoys the advantage of incumbency.

• Tolbert ought to have done better than he did in his race last year against Byron Brown; if the field weren’t so crowded, he’s be a shoo-in for school board. But it is crowded, so he’s not.

• Licata surprised many in 2009 by finishing first in the polls. He may have another surprise in him.

> BY geoff kelly

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