In West District, Buffalo School Board incumbent Mecozzi faces showdown with Abdo, Durham

[Buffalo News] In West District, Buffalo School Board incumbent Mecozzi faces showdown with Abdo, Durham

How do you serve a diverse and vibrant district whose residents also face intimidating barriers and which has tremendous need?

That's the pressing question for the incumbent and two challengers vying for the West District seat on the Buffalo School Board in the election that ends Nov. 8, the first time in nearly five decades that district races have run concurrently with general elections. Jennifer Mecozzi eyes her third three-year term representing the district, but challengers Le'Candice Durham and Mustafa Abdo aim to unseat her. 

This race is open only to voters in the West District, whose shape is tall and narrow and follows the Niagara River's shoreline. It includes neighborhoods like Riverside, Black Rock, Grant and Niagara streets in the upper and lower sections of the West Side, and does not mirror any Buffalo councilmanic district. Early voting, from Oct. 29 through Nov. 6, is available for district voters.

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This slice of the School Board pie is easily the most diverse, overseeing 10 schools that include Lafayette High School, Riverside High School, International Prep, Newcomer Academy, Native American Magnet, International School 45 and bilingual Frank A. Sedita Academy. The Buffalo Teachers Federation in the past has endorsed candidates in School Board races, but has not yet this year, with its focus on contract negotiations with the district.

The tasks for prospective School Board members are daunting: Amplify West District residents' voices on districtwide problems like transportation, security, suspensions and learning loss while also addressing issues more concentrated in the district, such as language barriers facing English language learners and their parents, teacher demographics not reflecting the student population and the need for more culturally appropriate programming to welcome immigrant and refugee populations.

Mecozzi, the incumbent, emphasized her personal growth over the last six years and the continuity she would bring to the board if re-elected. She's learned to harness her personality and compromise, she said. "I have a fire in me that just won't go away," said Mecozzi, who was born and raised on the West Side. "But I've learned to cool it down a bit."

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A mother and grandmother of children in Buffalo schools, Mecozzi emphasized the board's "equity lens." During her tenure, she has sponsored an Indigenous Peoples resolution, boosted the growth of innovative schools and pushed Culturally and Linguistically Responsive Initiatives. 

"For me, equity is making sure that the community understands what's happening and what's going on," she said after an October School Board meeting.  

Her passions involve a focus on English language learners and students with disabilities – Mecozzi said her son has an individualized education plan – plus confronting "needs on a whole scale," ranging from Career and Technical Education programs to prepare high school students and better options for adult education. She said she wants accountability for charter schools but has praised those which she deems transparent.

Durham's name may ring a bell: The mother of three in Buffalo schools and one in a charter school finished third behind India Walton and Byron Brown in the 2021 Democratic mayoral primary.

She said she's intimately familiar with Riverside, the neighborhood in which she lives, through service as president of her block club and with her husband through their Durham's Mobile Thrift Store. She describes Riverside as low-income and with many non-native speakers, but equipped with few translators – and she did not think Riverside's needs were being met by the current School Board.

"I haven't even heard of her and I've lived in Riverside for a few years," Durham said of Mecozzi. "She needs to be more active, more engaging."

Advocating for school safety has been a key point of her campaign, sparked by concerns from her own neighborhood. "Parents are afraid to send their children to school," Durham said, "and it's heartbreaking."

She argued for armed school security, an emphasis on teaching financial literacy and resolving the teachers contract by raising salaries. "We should be bringing more teachers in rather than scaring them away," she said, before adding that teachers should reflect their communities.

"If we're a welcoming city, and that we are, and our schools are very diverse, our teachers need to look like our students and our languages need to match," Durham said.

Abdo, a native of Somalia who spent 17 years in a Syrian refugee camp, tackled his own education head-on, arriving in Buffalo without knowing any English in 2007 before earning his master's degree from the University at Buffalo in 2021. But it was not just his educational journey that inspired him to run for a School Board seat, but also his experiences owning a small tech repair shop on Grant Street in 2013. 

"It opened my eyes to the problems in the district, just hearing them talk," said Abdo, referring to his customers from Burma, Bangladesh, Somalia and other Asian and African countries.

Abdo said he's acutely aware of the school district's struggles communicating with immigrant and refugee communities. One example was how Muslim students were treated during the religious observance of Ramadan, when teachers and administrators should be aware these students may have less energy, participate less and experience different moods. The answer is not to suspend these children, Abdo said.

He said he's had parents ask countless times, "Can you read this letter for me?" He said he hoped to provide a greater level of trust between these West Side communities and the school district.

Ben Tsujimoto can be reached at btsujimoto@buffnews.com, at (716) 849-6927 or on Twitter at @Tsuj10.

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy. Ben Tsujimoto

Reporter

Houghton College alum from Elma, NY.

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Source: Buffalo News