Syracuse Democrats under pressure to designate diverse candidates for school board

By | The Post-Standard   By Michelle Breidenbach  and Paul Riede Staff Writers
on May 03, 2013 at 6:02 AM, updated May 03, 2013 at 6:08 AM
Syracuse, NY – Race has emerged as a factor as Syracuse Democrats prepare to designate three candidates for a city school board that is losing its only black member.
More than 200 party committee members are invited to vote Saturday on the candidates the party will support this fall with its money and manpower. It’s the same process the party uses to pick candidates for mayor and city council and it is just as political.
This year, there is pressure on the party to endorse people of color to run for the board.
Calvin Corriders, the only African-American member of the board, is not seeking re-election.
Three potential candidates are white. One is an incumbent, one has big family political name and one is a party committee member who has tried to run before.
Five people of color, who are mostly new to politics, are making a case that they should win the party’s nod.
The Syracuse student body is 50 percent African-American, 26 percent white, 13 percent Hispanic and the rest Asian, Native American and multiracial, according to the school district.
Walt Dixie, head of the local advocacy group Alliance Network, said it is crucial for at least two candidates of color to be selected Saturday. He said that unless at least two of the three candidates selected are black or Hispanic, the Alliance Network will urge minority candidates to mount primary challenges and will support their campaigns.
Second-grader Akil Young-William listens to his teacher, Rosa Trapasso, during a reading exercise at Porter Elementary School. Sixty-three percent of the student body is African-American or Latino.Stephen D. Cannerelli 
“This (school) district is 75 percent black and Hispanic, and there should be some representation on there,” he said.
Dixie said he was disappointed two years ago when the committee selected four white candidates for school board.
Dixie said he is not suggesting that white board members don’t care about minority communities. But he said that on some issues — including which schools to renovate and which to close — it is important to have board members who represent a variety of neighborhoods.
Corriders also said he would be disappointed if the party does not choose a diverse slate of candidates.
“The thing I’ve always heard is there aren’t any (minority) candidates who are looking for the position and that certainly isn’t the case this year,” he said. “And I want to emphasize qualified candidates.”
The candidates have been sending letters, making phone calls and attending meetings in a busy internal party process that is almost invisible to the general public. Newcomers are surprised to discover the school board election is treated with the same political treatment as a candidate for mayor or city council.
One of the first things Taino Palermo did when he decided to run for office was join the Democratic Party as a rank-and-file committee member. As he goes from ward to ward on interviews, he said, he is disappointed by the lack of young people and the lack of diversity inside the party.
The whole process feels like cronyism, he said.
“Right now, the majority of this city has no input on the people who make the policies that impact them,” he said. “It’s a small group of people who elect a certain group of people to create policy for everyone in this city.”
Susan Fahey Glisson, president of Parents for Public Schools of Syracuse, said she is disappointed that candidates for school board have to be filtered through party committees at all. She would prefer that city school board candidates — like those in suburban districts – run independently of political parties.
“They shouldn’t have to have that affiliation with the political process,” she said. “There should be good, solid candidates who are there because they have the best interests of the kids in mind and not necessarily use it as a stepping stone to a big political office.”
There are eight Democrats seeking the party designation for three seats.
Pat Body is the only incumbent. She is a retired social worker. Her stepson is U.S. Rep. Dan Maffei.
David Cecile is a retired high school principal whose father was a school board member and councilor and whose brother and sister-in-law are judges.
Ronald Bell has sought the party’s nomination in the past. He is executive director of the Syracuse Shakespeare Festival and is a retired teacher.
Five other candidates would bring diversity to the board.
Roosevelt Baums is minister at the James Street United Methodist Church. He has run unsuccessfully for office, dating to the 1970s.
Derrick Dorsey is director of the Community-Wide Dialog to End Racism.
Palermo is youth development director for the YWCA . He has also founded a non-profit that provides support for minorities to get into college.
Rosemary Arroyo-Perez is a public health representative for the state and is finishing her degree at Syracuse University.
Ednita Wright is the teaching center coordinator at Onondaga Community College.
Tim Carroll, chairman of the Syracuse Democratic Committee, said there is a strong field of candidates.
“Everybody has a story,” he said.
But the story line for this race is diversity, he said.
“The conversation, frankly, every day is people saying we need to be aware of the need for balance on the board,” he said.
The vote is an uncomfortable topic for some committee members, who are not required to make their votes public and don’t see a need to say anything until the show is over.
Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner declined comment.
Richard Strong, a school board member who is not seeking re-election, is a committee member with a lot of clout. The votes are weighted and it works like this: each committee member can cast a number of votes equal to the number of votes cast in that election district on the Democratic Party line in the last gubernatorial race. That means the opinions of people in heavy voting neighborhoods like Strathmore and the East Side are worth more than less active places, which are often black and Latino neighborhoods.
Like others, Strong said he wants the process to play out Saturday before he talks publicly. But he did say he believes there is room for committee members to listen to the public.
“I think we as an organization definitely need to listen to some of the comments that have been made in the last couple years about the lack of diversity on the board when making a decision about candidates,” he said. “If the voters are unhappy with the selection, there will be other options out there.”
The candidates who do not win the party’s designation Saturday can collect signatures on petitions and force a September primary.
The Republican Party has not yet set a date for its endorsement meeting. Republicans are outnumbered more than 3 to 1 by Democrats Syracuse. There are 38,508 enrolled Democrats and 11,625 enrolled Republicans in Syracuse. There are more people not enrolled in a party (16,461) than there are Republicans, according to the Onondaga County Board of Elections.
Ed McLaughlin, a former board member, is the only Republican so far to express an interest in the race.

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