New School Board Seats Say Intense Reform Needed to get School District Working Again

Democrats swept the commissioner of education race Tuesday night, winning all four open seats.

“It’s an opportunity for real reform, we are reformers,” said Steve Swift, one of the candidates who brought in 7,510 votes. “We need to create 21st century schools and we will do that.”

Michelle Mignano brought in the highest tally, with 8,570, or 18 percent of the vote as of midnight on Tuesday, Nov. 8. She and Swift are joined by fellow Democrats Max Ruckdeschel and Bill Bullen. Republican Ed McLaughlin, who served on the board from 1998 to 2002, brought in 5,636 votes. Delilah Fiumara and Sarah Gilbert also ran on the Republican line. Gilbert was not actively campaigning.

The new term begins in January. With the election of the four Democrats, all education commissioners on the board will be Democrats. The party gathered at Pensabene’s restaurant on State Fair Boulevard to watch the election results.

Adopting a board governance structure, bringing more ideas from community members to the table are key pieces of each candidates’ platform. The four Democrats campaigned individually but also pitched themselves as a group to voters.

When asked what he would like to see done in the South Side on education, Swift said communication is key. He said he thinks the board members should spend more time talking with and listening to people from all of Syracuse’s neighborhoods. Strong community support is key to improving schools, he said.

“We’ve got to have community involvement. Communities have to own their schools,” Swift said.

At a debate between the candidates earlier in October, one audience member asked why there was not a more diverse selection of candidates running for education commissioner.

Bullen said he plans to work with Van Robinson, president of the Common Council, to find and recruit a diverse group of future leaders. He said board members need to teach and train future leaders to ensure there is more diverse community involvement.

The key to strong leadership, he said, is to “bring people up through the system.”

Both Swift and Bullen said they are excited about the results because the four Democratic candidates already know how to work as a team. Once all four were on the Democratic ballot line, they realized they shared similar visions.

“We worked together,” Swift said. “And it wasn’t by design, it evolved that way.”

McLaughlin, a Republican candidate, said he knew the Democrats were more likely to win. But he is happy that he had a chance to get his message out to the community. One of his main campaign issues was the elimination of cross-city busing.

In many neighborhoods, including the South Side, almost all students should be walking to school, he said. Putting students from different schools all on one bus does not make sense, he said.

“We got out there for a couple of months and we got out our message,” he said of himself and fellow Republican candidates.

Overall, Bullen said he feels all seven candidates running would have brought valuable, reform-minded initiatives to the board. When the term begins in January, the board may introduce unpopular initiatives, he said, but intense reform is the only way to get the school district working again.

Said Bullen: “It’s fundamental that we really understand that the school system is broken.”

For more Election Day stories, visit Democracy in Action

— Text by Kathleen Ronayne, S.I. Newhouse School of Publication Communications Journalism Students


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