School Board Elections, Mecozzi, and the "Reform" Label

by / Apr. 27, 2016 4am EST

“A Calamity in the Making” ran the heading over the Buffalo News’s long, lone editorial on Saturday. The looming cataclysm referred to wasn’t a threatened climactic or ecological disaster, an ominous instability in international financial markets, or gathering war clouds on the political horizon. No, it was only James M. Sampson’s removal last week from the ballot in the Buffalo Board of Education election by the county elections board, which found board president and West District member Sampson’s nominating petitions were 31 signatures shy of the minimum. “Vital school reform would end if union succeeds in taking over board,” read the subhead.

The thrust of this editorial alarmism accuses “the aggressive campaign” of the New York State United Teachers union of selfishly maneuvering toward “reshaping the Buffalo School Board and putting an end to reform efforts.” In the News’s editors’ sheer slant, Sampson is “the adult voice in the room” when city education policy is advanced and his elimination “would put in grave jeopardy the reform bloc’s one-vote majority (on the board) and its agenda.” This is quite likely true, but the assumptions, and the dubious use of words by the News and its allies in this affair obscure the issues, sometimes unpardonably.

The News’s alarmist message is really only a shrill addition to its obdurate, years-long retrogressive, “reformist” and anti-union campaign. To gain some insight into what’s really going on, we should examine the election positions of Jennifer L. Mecozzi, Sampson’s West District opponent (and a challenger of his petitions, despite the News’s stubborn insistence that this was all the nasty work of the teachers union).

Mecozzi is a first-time public-office candidate, and an organizer at PUSH Buffalo, a West Side community advocacy group with a large—and electorally valuable—membership base. Even before Sampson’s campaign hit a snag at the elections board, she posed a potentially serious problem for his re-election.

A parent of three students in city schools, Mecozzi has often appeared at board meetings to object to various of its decisions. In an interview with The Public this week, Mecozzi tied those appearances to what she said was the board’s poor record of public communication and engagement with her community. “At PUSH, we often don’t have information on the schools…things aren’t communicated to families.” She assigns some responsibility for this failure to Sampson.

If elected, Mecozzi’s issue positions would challenge important elements of the agendas of the News and the five-member majority Sampson is part of, although this hardly makes her an opponent of the public interest or change. She opposes using standardized student testing results to evaluate teachers, citing her own experience. Her youngest child developed a learning difficulty that was noticed by his kindergarten teacher, who recommended a remedial opportunity Mecozzi hadn’t known about. “How,” she asks, “can that kind of effort be evaluated with a test?” “Some people keep pointing fingers at teachers who have to deal with 30 students in a class,” she said. “Where is that going?” What’s needed, she said, are smaller classes and providing the resources teachers and students need to succeed. “How can testing help?” (Some members of the opposition also favor smaller classes.)

Mecozzi also supports community schools with expanded widely accessible social service and educational programs, not a return to the neighborhood schools advocated by the board majority. “Community schools can serve as hubs in their neighborhoods,” she observed, “with help for English Language Learners, a high priority in this city.” “The concept (of neighborhood schools) doesn’t really compute. Neighborhoods can take advantage of expanded programs. It would benefit the city, not just the West District.” She’s also skeptical about expansion of charter schools in the city, to the probable detriment of the public system, a core proposal of the board’s majority. 

Sampson didn’t respond to message requesting information about his ideas. Over the weekend, he decided to contest his removal and a Supreme Court hearing was scheduled for 9:30am Tuesday, shortly before this paper goes to print. His lawyer, Jeffrey Bochiecho, said the election board used “subjective standards” and his client had sufficient valid signatures.

One of the more important and influential aspects of the city’s educational controversies is the hijacking of the “reform” designation. Even the News’s Sunday capsule descriptions of the candidates’ positions implied that Sampson’s faction is the one favoring improvements. The brief section introduction contends that the “reform agenda” is at stake in this election, and the capsule says the Sampson-Mecozzi contest is “the quintessential reformer versus the community activist.”

There’s a kind of casual Orwellian obscuring of reality in this repetitive misusage.