Vincent “Jimmy” Cancemi is running for reelection to the Niagara Falls Board of Education. Election day is May 15th. He is contesting for one open seat with Joseph Marinello Jr. of LaSalle Avenue.
There is perhaps something that could be written about what the board completed in the last few years with Mr. Cancemi among its members that might interest readers, particularly those who vote.
For example, the settlement of all union contracts, upgrading every facility using state money, including electronic whiteboards in every classroom, streamlining programs, without eliminating any club or extracurricular activity; reducing energy consumption and selling surplus electricity; streamlining maintenance and participating in a now 19-year-old streak of not increasing the tax levy – a modern day record in New York State.
“I looked at every budget scenario gap,“ Mr. Cancemi said of his work on the board. “There were four different plans given to us by the State. And the thing that is so beautiful, of the 13 positions this year that we had to cut, nine left because of attrition. And the other four will be able to come back in another capacity. As far as major layoffs, there were none. We completely reevaluated our entire maintenance program by unifying teams of four people taking care of three schools and streamlined enough to save jobs.”
Mr. Cancemi spent a quarter of a century teaching special education, working with children with learning disabilities, attention deficit disorders, mental retardation and physical handicaps. He retired 10 years ago.
A little of his history may be of interest to voters. Mr. Cancemi’s mother and father were born in Sicily, making Mr. Cancemi a first generation American. The family lived at 316 Memorial Parkway near 12th and Niagara Street . His father died when Mr. Cancemi was seven. And, after his father died, Mr. Cancemi worked as a shoeshine boy on East Falls Street then as a paperboy. At age 16, he got his first real job at the old Treadway Hotel, in 1957, as a busboy. Next he became a room service waiter.
Bruno Scrufari was apparently a guest at the hotel at the time.
“I didn’t know who he was,“ Mr. Cancemi recalled. “I was just a kid coming out of high school. Bruno was going through a divorce at the time. I was the room service waiter and he would insist I sit in his room and have coffee with him. I had more than many arguments with him because I was working and I would get in trouble, never realizing that he owned the hotel…. After a number of days of this, he told me he owned the hotel and said ‘how would you like to go to work for me at Scrufari Construction?’”
Mr. Cancemi agreed and rose to chief clerk of the works, supervising cost estimating, insurance qualifications, New York State Labor dollars, payrolls, submissions, affidavits, and was involved in working on the Niagara River blowing up ice with dynamite, opening up the flood intakes, the heat intakes and building the Hooker Building .
Starting in 1961, he worked for eight years with the Niagara Falls Police and Fire Departments as a communications officer. Meanwhile, as he worked, he went to college, first at NCCC and then Buffalo State in the Special Ed program, completed in 2 years.
Mr. Cancemi was a Special Education Teacher for a total of 25 years with the Niagara Falls School District . He was named Teacher of the Year. He was once Director of the Child Find Project/No Child Left Behind. And, for those who may not know, Special Education is for children who are handicapped by New York State definition, who need extra time on tasks, and require a revision of materials that are presented.
“A lot of tender care,” Mr. Cancemi explained, “a lot of counseling…and I am proud to say Niagara Falls special education rate of graduation in New York State is up over 18% over other cities of the same size.
“When I went into education, Special Education children were looked on as a burden. Many felt we shouldn’t spend money on them because they would always be on some sort of social subsidy. I always felt we could teach more academics in what they called at that time ‘home schooling wards’ where they took care of their bodily needs and little things, that’s all. They didn’t have reading scores to go further and if a child can’t read, where is he going to go?
“What we had to do was streamline the courses. I couldn’t teach an 8th grade book on an 8th grade level. I would have to rewrite it down to about a 4th grade level and then teach it that way. Otherwise it would be like teaching a foreign language with no background. I have many of my old students out there working now. Yes, often they are menial jobs. But they are working, being productive members of society, being part of their community, self-sufficient, living on their own. Just because they are handicapped doesn’t mean they go away on graduation. They’re around for 50, 60, 70 years, just like everybody else.”
Long before he was a teacher, as he worked to put himself through college, he started a business, out of the trunk of his car, using catalogues, selling furniture door to door. He called it Cancemi furniture.
After becoming a teacher, he worked this business nights and weekends and grew his furniture company to a store on Pine Avenue with 12 employees. Cancemi Furniture is presently located at 551 6th Street .
While he was a teacher, he met his future wife, Kathleen, who was also a teacher, a speech therapist with the Niagara Falls School District . The two met at work, married and had two sons, now grown, Vincent Jr. and Anthony, both of whom still live in Niagara County .
During what might be arguably a fairly active life, Mr. Cancemi found time to be and still is co-Chairman of the Italian Festival, a member of the Niagara Falls Boys Club, the Boys Club Auction, the Foundation for Niagara Community College for higher education and President of the Niagara Falls Education Foundation.
What do you still need to do on the board that prompts you to seek reelection?, the Reporter asked.
“We need to get mandate relief from the State,’ Mr. Cancemi promptly answered. “The state creates mandates that cost the School Board so many dollars, but does not pay for their implementation. We have made cuts. We have taken out of our reserves. We are involved with BOCES because they get more money than we get and we use their money to purchase things on state contract less expensively. We team with Niagara University , Buffalo State and Niagara Community College and use the resources of all their students taking all their educational programs coming into our programs at really no cost to our school district. We have programs where our children are taking advanced level courses in high school. By the time they graduate from high school, some of them have 15-18 hours of college done, almost the first year done when they finish high school. These are great achievements. But above all, we need to curb state mandates.”
Then there’s the referendum where voters on September 25 can decide if they want the state to pay 100 percent of capital improvements to the 11 campuses in the district at around $70 million.
“That’s a no brainer,” Mr. Cancemi said. “If they turn it down this year, I don’t know what we’re going to do. The people have to understand, it is reimbursed by the State. There are so many demands – mandates required by the state, that costs us money. Now we have an opportunity to improve our buildings with state money. If we update our buildings they will be more energy efficient.”
Considering he went to the Niagara Falls School District as a student, then taught there for 25 years, has knowledge of construction, budgets, is a lifelong Niagara Falls resident, and has developed a successful, now 30 year old Niagara Falls business, along with his many unpaid volunteer duties for mainly educational and youth charities, it strikes us that Mr. Cancemi has the right blend of experience, work ethics and motivation to represent the interests of taxpayers, teachers and students, for the challenges that face the school district in the next five years.