Nothing that we do together as a community is more important than educating our children. Lockport’s public schools shape our daughters and sons more than anything else in their lives besides family. Fortunately, we are blessed as a district to have many wonderful teachers and staff. The Lockport Board of Education, however, is in serious need of some shaking up.
I’m sure that the members of the board are good people with good intentions who put in a lot of time, all of it unpaid. But the board majority has slid into becoming a closed group of old friends who don’t reflect Lockport’s diversity, don’t listen to the community, and who push all their serious discussions behind closed doors into executive session. The result has been some very bad decisions for which our children are paying the price.
The most well-known example is the district’s $2.7 million facial recognition camera system, a huge and needless waste of funds that does nothing to keep our children any safer. Two of the incumbents running for reelection, Heather Hare and Ed Sandell, both strongly supported the project. Instead of doing their homework and asking basic questions — about its effectiveness, about the conflict of interest of the man who brought it to them, and about the serious privacy issues involved — they just bought the pitch of a salesman. No other district in New York was so foolish. As Lockport’s schools head into difficult financial times as a result of COVID-19, their actions are not evidence of the kind of serious questioning and judgment we will need now more than ever. Others can do better.
The current board majority also treats listening to people as an annoyance rather than a responsibility. When a parent or student shows up at a board meeting to speak, they are lectured that the board isn’t actually obligated to hear them, but will grant them 180 seconds anyway. There is no better example of the board’s willful inability to hear our community than the case of Ron Cheatham, a beloved counselor and crisis-intervenor at North Park Junior High. An entire segment of our community has risen up to ask for one thing — to keep Mr. Cheatham — and the board has just left him and them hanging in the wind.
How we got here is our own fault, really. When we have board elections, nine out of ten people don’t even bother to vote. And almost no one steps up to run. Last year we had three candidates running for three positions, not exactly local democracy at its best. The meetings of the board are so poorly attended that it actually makes newspaper headlines when someone shows up to speak. When it comes to our children’s classrooms we do pay close attention, because we see directly why it matters. But when it comes to the district we have allowed the most important public institution in our community (one with a $105 million yearly budget) to operate with almost no public scrutiny at all.
Fortunately, we have a chance right now to make some needed changes. For this year’s board election we have 11 candidates running, people from every corner of our community (city and town) including exactly the kind of new people we need, people in the mold of Kyle Lambalzer, who has brought a welcome, independent perspective to the board. Here are three who I think are outstanding and worth your consideration.
Renee Cheatham, in addition to all her other skills as a parent and professional at the Cornerstone Federal Credit Union, is also extremely smart and deeply committed to bring change to the board. She will ask hard questions and get to the bottom of things. She will bring a voice and an energy and a perspective that is too absent now on the board, and badly needed. She’s just a powerful human being and the kind of force for change that we need.
Geneva Johnson has the intelligent grace of the retired grandmother and churchwoman that she is. A lifelong Lockportian, she has won awards for her volunteer work with the Dale Association, Briarwood Assisted Living Facility, Lockport CARES, the PTA and many other local organizations. She has especially focused her attention on our local families hurting with poverty. Her deep and rich knowledge of our whole community is also missing on the current board and badly needed.
Steve Allore is just one of those great Lockport dads. If you run into a gathering of Cub Scouts, more than likely Steve is going of be one of the leaders. As a journeyman sheet metal worker and active union member, a lot of you also saw him regularly on the GM picket line last year. We have a board now mostly made up of people who don’t actually have kids in our schools (but do have family on the district payroll). Steve has a young son in the Lockport district and like many young parents, he is invested in our schools for the long haul, and he will bring that perspective. He is also thoughtful and clear about what it takes to put kids first in the choices we have to make as a district.
I will be voting for each of these people with great enthusiasm and I hope you will consider them as well. There are four slots open and other good new people to choose from to finish the list. And this year, with special mail-in balloting, you don’t have to go any farther than your mailbox to vote.
Lockport needs a board of education that asks hard questions, that is willing to listen, that represents our whole community, and that will not lock itself off behind closed doors. Grab that ballot and help do some needed spring cleaning on Beattie Avenue. Our students, our teachers, and our community deserve it.
Jim Shultz is a father and grandfather in Lockport. He can be reached by email at: email@example.com.