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A class project: How one teacher and his students have organized local political debates since 1984

Ted Lina, a man dressed in a grey suit jacket, white shirt, and red tie. Lina has brown hair and a brown mustache. On the jacket is a pin with the letters "SJCI". He is speaking into a microphone with the WBFO NPR logo. Reporter Holly Kirkpatrick is holding the microphone. She is wearing a light tan suit jacket. They both stand in the gymnasium of St Joseph's Collegiate Institute, behind them are rows of red chairs.
Dallas Taylor
AP Government teacher at St Joseph's Collegiate Institute Ted Lina. Lina moderated the debate between Erie County Executive candidates at the Institute. The debates have been held at "St. Joe's" since 1984.

As another local General Election approaches, St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute was the host of a debate between Erie County Executive candidates, incumbent Mark Poloncarz, who is a Democrat, and Chrissy Casilio, who is a Republican.

Talking points from Thursday's debate made local news, including at WBFO. But behind the headlines, there’s the story of the debate itself.

Candidates for local elected positions have battled it out at St. Joseph's Collegiate Institute, known locally as "St. Joe's," since 1984. Each time, the debates have been moderated and led by AP Government teacher, Ted Lina, and produced by students in the class.

WBFO reporter Holly Kirkpatrick spoke with Mr. Lina after the debate to learn more. Listen to their conversation by pressing the 'Listen' button, or read the transcript, below:

WBFO: So tell me a little bit about this event and your involvement with it.

Mr. Lina: Well, I started this, as I stated during the debate, in October of 1984, and the reason for that was many years ago, I ran for public office myself. And as a UB grad and a political science major, I realized how little I knew, actually, about the political process itself. So I wanted my students to become more involved outside of the textbook, and have an opportunity to engage in debates of this sorts, and to research the questions and have an opportunity to ask these questions to candidates running locally.

WBFO: And you've been doing this, you've been moderating, every year for 39 years, is that right?

Mr. Lina: We missed one or two elections if there wasn't anything worth covering. But I did start 39 years ago, and next year will be our 40th year of doing the debates here at St. Joe's, God willing.

WBFO: And how long does it take you and your students to prepare for an event like this?

Mr. Lina: It takes us several weeks. Mr. McHale, History teacher in our department, we meet with the students, maybe five times. They put hours of research in and after we brainstorm, we start assigning topics to students. And once we have the topics then we get together as a group and we explain what's missing - we need to add more context or content to the question because this is a school, and we want the students to understand what we're asking and why we're asking it. And I think that's an asset for the general community, because I've had people outside of school - this shocks me - they say, 'You're the guy that does the debates, and we look forward to them.' That makes me feel wonderful.

WBFO: And how do you select the students that take part in the panel?

Mr. Lina: Well we use my AP class, though it's voluntary. We then try out for the panel and we give them a question to read. So we select the four best students in terms of are they loud enough? Are they a slow or fast talker? So on and so forth. And then the rest are given other roles like fact checkers, timekeepers and so on and so forth.

You can listen to the debate between Erie County Executive candidates Mark Poloncarz and Chrissy Casilio in full, as well as read WBFO's report on the event,here.

Early voting for the local General Elections starts Oct. 28, and Election Day is Nov. 7.

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