Niagara Gazette

May 15, 2013

Falls school board candidates spar over testing, taxes and residency requirements

By Rick Pfeiffer
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — The discussion was wide ranging, but the controversies were few in a public forum for the six candidates running for two seats on the Niagara Falls Board of Education.

About 40 people listened, in the auditorium of the Falls Public Library on Tuesday night, as the candidates talked about everything from their hobbies to charter schools and how they felt about the school district’s bottom-of-the-barrel ranking by a local business publication.

Four newcomers to school board politics are seeking to unseat board veterans the Rev. Kevin Dobbs and businessman Don King.

Former city councilman Michael Gawel fired the first shot of the night by saying he was running for the board because, “We need to change the way we’re doing things. It’s not working.”

Gawel also jumped on a question from the forum moderator when he asked each candidate, “How many Niagara Falls School District employees are you related to?”

“I have no family members working for the board of education,” Gawel said. “No kids, no aunts or uncles, no cousins.”

Candidate Herbert Lewis also said he had no immediate or extended family on the school district payroll. 

“I will have no strings attached,” Lewis said. “And no nepotism.”

King said he believed “a cousin” of his wife was a district teacher, while challenger Anthony Paretta admitted his sister was a teacher’s assistant. Candidate Ronald Barstys said his wife was a teacher in the district.

“Just because you have a relative (working) in the district, it doesn’t mean what you think it means,” Baestys added. 

Dobbs, who had served 16 years as a school board member, told the crowd he has three daughters employed by the district. Two are teachers and one is a teacher’s aide.

“I’m very proud of my daughter’s (work),” Dobbs said. “I’m very proud of the fact I have children (working) in the district.”

On the issue of the first proposed increase in school taxes in 19 years, all the candidates except Lewis said they supported the tax hike. 

The issue of requiring district employees to live in the Falls was a little more divisive. Paretto, Dobbs, Gawel, King and Lewis all supported the requirement.

Barstys said he supported requiring new employees to live in the district, but suggested that after 10 years of employment they be allowed to move outside the city.

The candidates divided deeply over school district rankings, published every year by a local business newspaper. The rankings are based largely on tests scores and place the Falls 92nd out of 97 local school districts.

“I think we should be concerned,” Dobbs said. “But the rankings aren’t fair rankings.”

Dobbs complained the rankings compare “apples to oranges” saying a “poor” district like the Falls is stacked up against more “affluent” districts.

Gawel shot back, “This is why I’m running (for the school board). All I hear is excuses (for underperforming schools).”

Barstys, an administrator in the North Tonawanda School District, agreed with Dobbs. He said he thought the rankings were flawed.

“These are not excuses,” Barstys said. “(The factors affecting test scores) are facts.”

Paretto jumped on the use of standardized tests for students and the implementation of standardized teacher evaluations. He opposes both.

“(Teacher assessments are) hammering people who have a right to make a living,” Paretto said. “It’s a bogus test. A teacher has so much to worry about, he shouldn’t have to worry about being in the unemployment line.”

All the candidates also said they opposed the expansion of charter schools in the district.