January 31, 2023
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Despite losses, national politics make inroads in school elections | Education

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There was no question that school budgets were a big winner on Tuesday, as every proposal in Erie and Niagara County passed, as did 99 percent of spending plans across the state.

National political issues did not score anywhere near the same kind of resounding victories in Western New York school board elections Tuesday, but candidates challenging incumbent school boards and administrations did make some inroads.

They were the ones talking about medical freedom and the harm children suffer from wearing face masks, as well as parent involvement in curriculum and an end to mandates. 

And all sides are talking about Tuesday as a win.

Jonathan Rich of Western New York Students First said the group had a good showing. It endorsed 26 candidates in Erie and Niagara counties, and eight of them won. The group formed during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic to fight restrictions and mandates, such as directives to wear face masks.

Voters in Erie, Niagara counties approve school budgets, reject candidates running on national issues

The budgets won – and national politics lost. Voters in school districts in Erie and Niagara counties Tuesday for the most part rejected candidates running on issues related to pandemic restrictions and subject matter taught in schools that have divided school boards in other parts of the country.

“You always go in hoping you win everything,” Rich said. “You’re not going to win everything. The goal is to show who you are.”

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The Constitutional Coalition of New York supported many of the same candidates as Western New York Students First, as well as a few others. The group claimed 22 wins in Erie, Niagara, Chautauqua, Cattaraugus and Monroe counties, saying grassroots “resoundingly defeated establishment educators and bureaucrats.”

But many of their endorsed candidates in the group’s first foray into school board elections also lost. 

“Part of organizing is to take your wins and capitalize on your wins and motivate people to take the next step,” said Nancie Orticelli of the Constitutional Coalition of New York. 

Meanwhile, the state’s largest union, New York State United Teachers, said member unions helped elect 295 school board members statewide. The union endorsed 344 candidates. And 60 members of NYSUT were elected to school boards throughout the state.

District by district results: Erie and Niagara County suburban school elections

Results are coming in for school board elections across the region, where residents voted Tuesday on school budget proposals and school board candidates.

“Under the banner Public Schools Unite Us, we saw a wave of pro-public education school board members elected Tuesday who we know will prioritize students at every board meeting,” NYSUT President Andy Pallotta said in a press release. 

In Erie and Niagara counties, five of 43 union-endorsed candidates lost.

Rich said some races were more contentious than others.

“I think it shows there maybe more work to be done in those districts to create a different platform,” he said.

Candidates the group endorsed lost in high profile races in East Aurora, Hamburg and Orchard Park. And two of the three candidates the group endorsed in the Williamsville Central School Board race also were endorsed by the Williamsville Teachers Association.

Rich said its candidates in Williamsville were called white supremacists during the campaign, despite being Democrats. 

“Hopefully we can do more next year to diffuse this sense of fear,” Rich said.

Races in some districts looked like a November general election campaign.

“There’s a very enshrined and entrenched group with a lot of power, and if they feel like their power is taken away they’re going to react politically to prevent that,” Rich said.

Turnout in most districts in Erie and Niagara counties was the highest it has been in the last seven years, with the exception of 2020. That election was during the height of the pandemic when there was no in-person voting and every registered voter received a mail-in ballot. 

Voter turnout was the key in places like Hamburg. Challengers Kelly Hunter, Tammy Delong and Jacqueline Best, who each got around 1,000 votes, would have been elected with that many votes if they had they run in most other years.

For the Constitutional Coalition of New York, which says on its Facebook page it is “a gathering place for patriots and protectors of the Constitution of the United States of America,” the school board elections are a foundation for races in November. 

Orticelli said if some members get discouraged, she tells them a saying about liberty and vigilance.

“It’s not the price of liberty is one school board election; it’s eternal vigilance,” Orticelli said.

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