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There's No "We" in "Team," Either

“This is perhaps the most important school board election in decades,” Ralph Hernandez told a discouragingly small crowd earlier this week at a forum for school board candidates. “Did you know that 58 percent of the charter schools in this city are failing? And that [two] of the Buffalo News’s endorsed candidates want to turn the majority of Buffalo public schools into charters?”

Hernandez said “three” but he meant to say two: The News has endorsed three candidates—Larry Quinn, Patty Pierce, and incumbent John Licata—and so wholehearted an embrace of charter school can only be attributed to Quinn and Pierce. And even then it would be an exaggeration, probably of their positions and certainly of their capability to achieve so radical a change, should they be among the three at-large members who will be elected on Tuesday.

(For the record, Hernandez told an Artvoice correspondent he heard Quinn and Pierce take that position at a candidates forum at the Frank L. Merriweather Memorial Library the week before.)

It is tempting to reduce Tuesday’s election for three at-large seats on Buffalo’s school board into a contest between four groups of candidates: those who want to form a coalition with developer and school board member Carl Paladino, fire Superintendent Pamela Brown, promote the proliferation of charter schools, and play hardball with the teachers unions; those who, regardless of how they evaluate Brown’s performance, oppose Paladino’s bluster and are sympathetic to teachers unions; those who fit in neither camp comfortably; and everybody else—the candidates who few voters have heard of or have little chance of winning in a citywide race.

It is also facile. The tandem of Quinn and Pierce are Paladino partisans, certainly, and they are running as a team because they hope to join him as a voting bloc, but they’re not one-dimensional. Nor are the members of the second group, which includes Hernandez, Board President Barbara Seals Nevergold, and attorney Sam Davis, simply stooges for the villainous teachers unions, as their detractors would have Buffalo voters believe. Licata, who likes to call himself “everyone’s favorite third choice,” fits into the third group, the in-betweeners, as is evident in his endorsement by both the News, which seems to be blessing the Paladino agenda, and Citizen Action, which does not. Former mayoral candidates Bernie Tolbert and Sergio Rodriguez seem to be in-betweeners as well, though their policy positions are less detailed than those of Licata, who has the benefit of five years’ experience working on the school system’s thorny issues.

To divide the candidates so easily into teams is specious and unhelpful, as is blaming teachers’ contracts for the failures of a public school system that operates under strict state and federal mandates. It is specious to pretend that the city’s public school system is entirely a failure. A campaign by the newly formed Buffalo Parent-Teacher Organization, which is something of a union-supported counter to the District Parents Coordinating Council, announced this week that it is launching “a $500,000 multi-media campaign…highlighting the strengths of the city’s public schools and dedicated to advancing collaboration among parents, educators and the community.” (You can read more at the campaign’s website, Coincidentally, the Buffalo Teachers Federation announced that on Thursday it will release a study documenting some of the failures of the city’s charter schools. (We’ll publish it online as soon as it’s released.) The BPTO campaign and the BTF report will offer voters both important information and politics, just as those who support privatization and union-busting mix facts and fear-inducing rhetoric to advance their positions. How’s a person supposed to know what to believe?

In politics, opponents spend a lot of time trying to turn one another into cardboard cutouts, then light fire to the cutouts. To make informed decisions, to feel out the actual contours of the candidates and their positions, voters must shrug off invitations to join one team and vilify another.

Though some such invitations display remarkable honesty, such as one offered by Bryon McIntyre, the firefighter who was disqualified from the ballot for deficiencies in his nominating petitions. At the same forum where Hernandez talked down charter schools, McIntyre invited the few voters in attendance to write his name in on their ballots and forgo their two other choices. “Vote for me,” he said, “and only for me.”

(Note: A representative of Citizen Action justly took this writer to task for suggesting last week that the group’s endorsement of Sam Davis meant that Davis had the support of the teachers unions. That was reductive of Citizen Action, the unions, and Davis. Mea culpa.)

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