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Welcome to the machine

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by Chris Busby

At least three Democratic candidates for seats on the Rochester City School Board will continue their campaigns, despite failing to get the party's endorsement at its May 17 convention. Howard Eagle, Jim Greco, and Woody Hammond say they'll gather petition signatures to force a primary this September, in hopes of running on the party's line in November.

            Domingo Garcia, head of the Ibero Investors Corp., is still pondering a primary campaign. Garcia also failed to get the party's nod, despite having received the support of former board president Joanne Giuffrida when she dropped out of the race to take a high-level job with the district.

            Eagle, Greco, and Hammond all have similar complaints about the party's endorsement process. They charge that it is corrupted by political cronyism and heavy-handed tactics on the part of party big-wigs like state Assemblyman David Gantt and Mayor Bill Johnson, the party's candidate for county executive this year.

            This political arm-twisting, they say, keeps qualified candidates off the ballot in favor of those with political connections --- connections which ultimately compromise a board member's ability to work in the best interests of the district.

            "People begin to buy favors at some point in time, and I understand that," says Hammond, a first-time candidate. "But the only thing I want these folk to do is to buy favors for children, for parents. Don't buy favors for the political posturing, because that gets us the same kind of condition our school board is in now."

            Though they went through the lengthy process of meeting with party committees this spring in order to secure the right to address the convention, none of the three say they expected to get the party's nod.

            Greco, a self-described "education activist," and Eagle, a social activist who teaches social studies in the district, have both been vocal critics of the current board, which is comprised entirely of Democrats. Given that, the party's unwillingness to endorse them may be more understandable than its rejection of Garcia or Hammond.

            Hammond has over three decades of experience in the district as a teacher, administrator, and grant writer, but considerably less experience with local politics. And so far as the top members of the county's Donkey Party are concerned, political experience can be just as important as educational experience when it comes to serving city school children.

            "To have never been a political person before, as I have not been, you have these grandiose ideas that everything on the up-and-up and fair, and that people are really gonna look at your talents and ability and vote their conscience," Hammond says of the endorsement process. "That is not the case in this process... There are several folk who have decided that they are going to try to gain and maintain control, and they do it."

            County party chair Molly Clifford says the Dems' endorsement process is obviously politicized, because it's "political by its nature."

            "However," she adds, "it is an open process. We have committee people who vote on who they want their candidates to be, and that's what happens."

            Clifford takes offense at the notion that Gantt or Johnson have undue influence over the party's picks. "I think it's a little insulting to the members of the Democratic Committee that they're seen as so malleable," she says. "These are all people who are interested in the Democratic Party and the democratic process.

            "We have people who are part of the Democratic Party on all ends of the spectrum," she says. "Some people may look to David Gantt to give them advice on who to vote for, but many do not. So I don't think that that's a part of it."

            However, Hammond's lack of previous involvement with the party does matter.

            "I think that, perhaps, Woody is a new person to the Democratic Party," Clifford says. "He's not new to the school board or the school district, but he was not known by members of the Democratic Party, and that makes it harder when you're seeking office."

The school board's efforts to fill Giuffrida's seat this summer will provide the public with a potentially ugly view of the way politics influences education in Rochester.

            As City reported last week ("Filling Giuffrida's sneakers," May 21, 2003), state education law gives the board 30 days following a vacancy to nominate and approve, by majority vote, an interim member, who'll serve through the rest of the year. If the board does not approve someone after 30 days, state law stipulates that the board president --- in this case, Shirley Thompson, who's running for re-election this year --- may appoint a replacement.

            But as board member Darryl Porter points out, when the board voted to change its bylaws last winter, it stripped the board presidency of much of its power. "They keep forgetting they put that in," Porter says of Rob Brown, Thompson, and other board members who supported the change (Porter opposed it). As a result, Porter says any replacement would have to be approved by a majority vote, even after 30 days.

            Brown says he's unsure whether the board's bylaws supercede state education law in this case. Michael Looby, the board's legal counsel, was also unsure which law would take precedence, but he expects the board will ask him to look into the issue soon. Thompson says it's her opinion that the president should retain the power to appoint a replacement, but says Looby will ultimately make the decision.

            Porter says he intends to nominate Hammond for the interim seat, but he doesn't expect the veteran educator and administrator to be approved. "If you were looking at somebody who could hit the ground running, who you don't have to sit there and baby-sit, [Hammond] is more than qualified for that position," Porter says. "But I can almost guarantee that they won't support him. It's the political season now, so they'd rather play politics than do the right thing."

            Brown says that since state law mandates that the interim position be filled by someone of the same party as the departing member, "presumably, there must be some interest in having the party's wishes performed, and it's clear who the top four [candidates] were." Thompson, former board member Willa Powell, youth activist Malik Evans, and David Perez got the party's endorsement this year.

            Asked what he knows of Hammond's qualifications to serve on the board, Brown said, "I know he didn't do very well at the convention."

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