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Meet the New Guy

John Licata, who finished first in Tuesday’s Buffalo school board race, talks about the election and his new job

Attorney John Licata finished first in Tuesday’s election for three at-large members of the Buffalo Board of Education, well ahead of incumbent Chris Jacobs, who finished second. Leading the contenders for the third seat is challenger, Bryon McIntyre, who clings to a 51-vote lead over incumbent Catherine Collins and a 58-vote lead over incumbent Florence Johnson.

Licata came by the Artvoice office on Wednesday morning to talk about the election, the school system, and the job ahead:

AV: How does it feel to have won a seat on the school board?

Licata: It is encouraging and it is gratifying, and it reaffirms my faith in the electorate. Because they had a lot of information thrown at them. By some estimates, 60 or 70 thousand dollars in mailings telling them to go vote for [the three incumbents]. The mayor came out for [the incumbents], a state senator, a county legislator, and they still didn’t get 5,000 votes. That is showing that the people who voted were caring, concerned, and informed voters, and they weren’t going to be swayed by someone telling them, “No, everything’s fine. This is the way the program’s supposed to go.”

They’re fed up. We’ve seen it at the federal level, where we want transparency, we want accountability, and we want results. You don’t get results by just hiding all the information. You get results by sharing information, bringing people into the process. That’s what we demanded. People came out and voted for transparency, accountability, and results. I hope to deliver that.

I think we need to take education in a new direction. I was talking with a parent just this morning, who lives just across the street from the school she’d like her children to attend. She’s lived there all her life. She said, “If my child doesn’t get into that school, I’m leaving the City of Buffalo.”

Every parent can come up with one school that they want their child to attend—whether it’s Discovery School or City Honors of Bennett Park Montessori. There are a number of gems in the system. But on this tabletop, once you get to the edge, once that one choice is gone, the next step is a big step. It’s a question of “Where do I feel safest?” “Where will my kid come home?” as opposed to “Okay, that’s a good school as well.” We need to take what we have and improve it so that parents aren’t looking at three choices of where to enroll their kids and saying, “Okay, what’s number two and what’s number three? Number two is parochial, number three is private. Number four is I have to move.” We need to go from there to saying, “Which school do I want to leave off [my list]?” If we have that kind of education at the pre-K, kindergarten and first grade, which should be the easiest thing to change, I think that’s how the school system is going to be saved—making the choices so desirable that people are fighting, calling politicians to say, “Can you get my kid into that school?” We see that happening with City Honors, we see that happening with other schools. We want that to happen with nearly any school.

AV: What are the obstacles to that sort of improvement?

Licata: I think there’s a lot of territoriality. But if everybody’s on the same page, if it is about the kids, then if a school is closing in your district but a great school is opening in another district, everybody should be on board. Because that’s what you want…for everyone to have quality schools. And if one district has 11 schools and another district has eight, then maybe that’s the district where the new school should go.

We’ve got to partner with the teachers, we need to partner with the parents, we have to encourage the kids. We can’t say, “There’s your camp and there’s your camp,” and keep separating everybody. That’s what’s happening now.

AV: How do you deal with the acrimony between the administration and the Buffalo Teachers Federation?

Licata: Why should there be acrimony at all? The information is public: This is the money we have. We’re not printing money at the Buffalo School Board. This is how much money we have, this is what we can afford…Teachers aren’t in it for the money. They want to touch a life, they want to touch a future, that’s what you do as a teacher. You have to respect that. Everybody’s in it to improve the schools. And if that’s true, then everybody should be able to give up whatever they need to give up to make the school system stronger—and take responsibility for whatever they need to take responsibility for to make the schools system stronger. Someone said, “It’s simple, but it’s not easy.” We’re working with human nature.

AV: How do you account for the fact that you finished first in the polls, well ahead of the three incumbents?

Licata: I called parents, I went to the candidate forums. There was one candidate forum that none of the incumbents went to. And it’s not just the 25 or 50 people who attended the forum; they go home and they talk. I know there were people who were not supporting me before they went to the forum, and they came up and told me that they changed their minds having heard me, and they were going to tell their friends. It’s word of mouth. It’s not a large election. It’s small election, you have a motivated electorate, and they talk to their friends. I also have four children in the Buffalo Public Schools. I think that went along way toward showing that I’m committed to improving education for all children.

I had a number of people who were walking door to door. There’s a great deal of effort just meeting people on a one-to-one connection, and we see that thousands of pieces of mail can’t make up for that credibility…I’ve lived in the city all my life. I went through the public schools. I went to state schools for college, law school. I believe that resonated. I was promoting transparency, I was promoting accountability. And as a trial lawyer with Hogan Willig, I don’t intimidate. What are you going to do, question me harder, yell at me louder? I’m seven out of nine kids. Do your worst. I don’t see how anyone can stop me asking questions.

AV: The Buffalo News, which endorsed the slate of incumbents, defined you and the other challengers as an anti-Williams faction. What do you think of that?

Licata: Of the Williams polemic, as in you’re either for Williams or against him? I spent a lot of time with these challengers, and I think any one of them would make a great member of the board. And I think any one of them would say the same thing: It’s not anti-Williams, it’s about performance. What’s happening isn’t working. And if the board has rubber-stamped Superintendent Williams, and hasn’t tested his ideas or questioned what’s going on, and these are the results we’re getting—well, then, it’s not Williams, it’s whoever the superintendent is.

He should be questioned: Why are we doing this? Is there a better way to do this? Are there other results around the country that show that this program works? Why are we sticking with it if the older students aren’t performing? If we’re essentially giving up on the older students, that’s abandoning half of the people we’re responsible for.

I believe most of the challengers were parents. They see what is happening, and they know it’s not working, they’re passionate, and they care about the schools. It’s not about Williams; it’s about parents who want progress in the schools. Williams becomes a nice little catch phrase, but he’s not the issue. The issue is that the performance isn’t there. The graduation rate is dropping. There’s no negotiations going on with the teachers union. How do you teach without a contract? They’re in court with the administration. We’re paying lawyers to defend a position that is really contrary to the rule of law. What message does that send to the kids? If we’re willing to break the law, if the rules are broken by someone that’s a principal or an administrator, then we turn the other way? And we say we have a discipline problem?

There’s a statistic that the number of people who cheated on their taxes hit a spike in 1974-75. That was Watergate. When the president of the US is breaking the law, everybody looks around and says, “Why am I being the fool and abiding by the law?”

If students stand up for what they believe is right, they get suspended for two months? For exhibiting character traits that we try to cultivate in every child? That’s their reward? Why would I be motivated to behave?

I think it’s not about Williams. It’s about what’s happened over the past two years. This at-large election happens every five years, and if you try to smokescreen parents, telling them that the schools are doing well…people see through that.

John also sat down and spoke with Artvoice TV about the race. Watch the interview on AVTV.

It All Adds Up

What to make of Tuesday’s school board election? Let’s review, class.

Regardless of the final outcome of Buffalo’s school board election, which should be decided after a tally of absentee ballots sometime next week, one thing is clear: The business community appears to have gotten a disappointing return on its investment. Based on financial disclosure forms filed by candidates and Buffalo Students First—the unregistered affiliate group of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership—over $75,000 was spent on the campaigns of incumbents Chris Jacobs, Catherine Collins, and Florence Johnson, and it appears to have produced fewer than 12,000 votes combined. Jacobs finished second, while Collins and Johnson finished fourth and fifth. There are still some 800 absentee ballots to be counted, so the third spot on the board is still technically up for grabs.

That’s more than $6 per vote, and at this point, only Jacobs has retained his seat. But that’s probably fair, considering a visual review of his financial statement on May 6 showed him $39,774.27 in the hole after the campaign. The at-large school board job pays around $5,000/year.

By contrast, challenger John B. Licata collected the most votes of any candidate with nearly 5,000 votes, or 18 percent of people who voted. Licata’s ROI was somewhere around one vote for every dollar spent.

Challenger Bryon McIntyre, should he retain his 51-vote lead for third place, appears to have received the biggest bang for the buck. He spent around $1,000 and took in 3,831 votes at the polls—something like a quarter per vote.

What does all this mean? I don’t know, but I’m willing to take a guess. I would suggest that the embarrassingly small number of voters who turn out for school board elections are not as stupid as Andrew Rudnick and the editorial staff of the Buffalo News—who endorsed the incumbents on May 2—believes them to be.

Rudnick, as president and CEO of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, might deserve some blame for allowing a potentially illegal pile of campaign mailers to be sent out from the Partnership’s address, using a fake name (Buffalo Students First). Also odd is how the mailers feature photos of Collins, Johnson, and Jacobs posed in various places around City Hall—yet all the candidates appear to “deny that any monies or other valuable things were paid, given, expended, promised or incurred on their behalf, by Buffalo Niagara Partnership or Buffalo Students First, with the approval of these candidates,” according to court documents. Did Buffalo Niagara Partnership or Buffalo Students First just happen to have these photos lying around the office and decide to spend $30,000 mailing them out to people, putting words in the candidates’ mouths?

The fact that Buffalo Students First has yet to file a DBA was also introduced into the court record on Monday, May 4, during a show-cause proceeding in front of Hon. Frederick J. Marshall. The court date was brought in an effort to make the school district speed up the release of public information pertaining to the election to this newspaper—so that information could be shared with the electorate before election day.

In the end, it appears that campaign mailers—including one from Buffalo Students First that had Mayor Byron Brown, Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples, and State Senator Antoine Thompson endorsing the incumbents—could not erase the collective memory of voters who’ve been bombarded with controversies and scandals within the school board over the past couple of years. Jayvonna Kincannon, ResulTech, the Discovery School incident, unhappy teachers who have their court victories ignored and met with more legal challenges, reporter Tom Borelli’s tragic death from falling down dangerous stairs in a newly renovated stadium…these sorts of developments tend to offend people.

They don’t forget. It may have been a mistake to assume voters would buy into the claim that the incumbents needed five more years to continue on their present course “for the children.” Every time that mantra was repeated, it only served to reinforce the collective notion that maybe it was time to let someone else have a try.

In retrospect, an apology from the incumbents for allowing the graduation rate to drop to 46 percent under their watch, with a humble promise to do better, might have been a better approach—for starters.

Much has been made of a new board majority that will supposedly threaten Superintendent James Williams’s vision for the Buffalo Schools. Yet only a year ago, we recall that Williams was pursuing the superintendent job in Memphis. What would we have done had that panned out for him?

At any rate, things have changed on the school board. To what degree things will change for our children remains to be seen.

buck quigley

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