ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (WIVB) — Three student-endorsed candidates won a contentious school board election Tuesday in Orchard Park.

Steven Comeau, Ed Draves and Jennifer Rogers won seats on the board, outdrawing Steven Barlette, Bobby Wellington and Katherine Ibarra by more than 700 votes each.

This race caused tension in the community, especially at Board of Education meetings. In meeting minutes from January, there was a lengthy discussion over the gender identity policy the district adopted, which allowed students to use restrooms and locker rooms corresponding to their gender identity. There was also discussion about banning certain books in the library.

“We’re so proud of the campaign that we ran,” the victors said in a joint statement. “Jen, Ed, & Steve were united by a common desire to support our professional educators & let ALL of our students know that they have a place where they belong in Orchard Park’s schools. We purposefully set a North Star of kindness and factual content throughout our campaign. We are honored to have the support of a student led organization, Students Protecting Education and the teachers via OPTA. 

“We will continue working with all stakeholders by listening first, remembering to begin from a place of compassion, and by keeping everyone’s interests at heart.”

While it is unusual for students to be involved in a Board of Education campaign, Orchard Park sophomore Luke Lippitt started the group “Students Protecting Education” in October. He said students formed this group to advocate for themselves in this election. Students Protecting Education publicly endorsed Draves, Rogers and Comeau, who went on to win.

“We sat down and said we’re going to support candidates that we as students see as important. The values of diversity, inclusion, love and acceptance,” Lippitt said.

He believed the success of the candidates endorsed by his group “exemplifies the strong support for our shared values within the community.”

“With these results tonight, we believe that positive change is on the horizon,” Lippitt said. “We anticipate a future where all students, regardless of their backgrounds, feel valued, included, and empowered within the education system. The election results serve as a powerful validation of our collective efforts and reinforce our commitment to continuing the fight for an equitable and enriching educational experience for every student.”

The six candidates in the race for three seats aligned themselves in two distinct groups. Rogers, the current vice president of the board, was joined by Draves and Comeau. They were opposed by Ibarra, Barlette and Wellington. Ibarra and Barlette also ran for open seats last year, but both lost.

“We’re one of the top districts in the area and we want to keep it that way. A severe disruption in how things are run would only hurt that,” Draves said prior to the election. “We support the teachers and we have the teachers support in kind. We support all students no matter how they identify themselves, how they love or their socioeconomic background.”

“It seems to be a rubber stamp. It’s a group-think. There’s no dissenting opinions, very little discussion,” Barlette countered. “We don’t know why they are voting the way they vote. … I want answers to the answers that I ask. It’s not really a good feeling when you don’t feel represented, and your family doesn’t feel represented and you feel ignored and cast off to the side.”

A large number of voters turned out to the polls, packing the high school to make their voices heard. Some felt the board needed to include different voices, but others felt the district is on the right track.

The vote count was as follows:

  • Steven Comeau: 2,742
  • Jennifer Rogers: 2,727
  • Ed Draves: 2,732
  • Steven Barlette: 2,021
  • Bobby Wellington: 1,981 
  • Katherine Ibarra: 1,978

Also on the ballot were three proposals, including the budget, which passed 3,621-1,104. The current Board of Education proposed a $119,841,109 operating budget for next school year, which will be a 0% tax levy increase according to the district.

The second proposal, which called for purchasing and financing buses and related equipment, passed 3,821-853. It requested the district purchase an additional 66-passenger bus, three 77-passenger buses, four 22-passenger school busses, and four 35-passenger school buses. The district says these buses would be fully funded by state aid.

The final proposal also passed overwhelmingly, adding a non-voting student member of the Board of Education. The student will not vote, will not attend executive sessions and will not have access to confidential information. The student can provide information and a voice at the table.

Tara Lynch is a Buffalo native who joined the News 4 team as a reporter in 2022. She previously worked at WETM in Elmira, N.Y., a sister station of News 4. You can follow Tara on Facebook and Twitter and find more of her work here.