New York State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia has made the rare decision to hold an in-person, public hearing to decide whether Carl P. Paladino can remain on the Buffalo School Board.
Elia's decision comes nearly four months after Paladino's racially charged comments about former President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama elicited intense public calls for his removal. Four different groups filed formal petitions asking the commissioner to exercise her power to remove him, and protesters continue to interrupt School Board meetings insisting on his dismissal.
"It really has been a major distraction and it has hampered the work of the board for many reasons," School Board President Barbara A. Seals Nevergold said of the ongoing issue. "The time frame that it has taken to get to this point has been a lot longer than anybody thought. It's important for members of the community to understand that this is a process. It’s a legal process. It requires that both parties have an opportunity to make their case."
The hearing is scheduled for 9 a.m. June 22 at the State Education Department in Albany. Although the hearing is open to the public, space will be limited. As the hearing date approaches, the department will determine a process for allowing attendance.
The June hearing is to address the petition filed by the Buffalo Board of Education, which originally sought Paladino's removal for the comments about the Obamas, then changed course on the advice of its attorney.
Now, the board majority is arguing that Paladino violated policy when he published information about teacher contract negotiations that was discussed in an executive session. District policy prohibits board members from sharing information discussed in executive session because it can inhibit the district's ability to do business.
"We are looking forward to having the opportunity to address with her the reasons that we filed the petition," Nevergold said.
Paladino has not disputed that he published that information in an email and an article in the alternative weekly Artvoice, but says it was not subject to confidentiality.
He also argues that he is a victim of an illegal, coordinated conspiracy to get him off the board, and that a hearing gives him a chance to provide evidence and cross examine witnesses called by the School Board's attorney.
"We are very satisfied that the commissioner has scheduled a hearing because we're eager to present our case in an open forum,"said Dennis C. Vacco, Paladino's attorney. "We want a full and fair hearing of all this."
Earlier this month, Paladino asked the commissioner to delay making a decision because he may sue for monetary damages and the dismissal of the petitions against him, but Elia denied that request. Paladino is still weighing whether to file a federal lawsuit, Vacco said.
Elia also denied a request to hold the hearing in Buffalo, and several days have been set aside to deliver arguments in Albany.
It is not yet clear whether Elia will call for separate hearings to address the three other petitions, which are still being reviewed by the Education Department.
Along with the issue of the executive session, the other petitions argue that Paladino violated the state's Dignity for All Students Act when he made the racially charged comments. That law requires that districts ensure that students can attend school in an environment free of harassment and discrimination.
Paladino's remarks appeared in an end-of- the-year survey in Artvoice, in which the board member wished death by mad cow disease upon President Obama in the new year, referred to the first lady as a man and said he'd like her to be "let loose in the outback of Zimbabwe where she lives comfortably in a cave with Maxie, the gorilla."
"Our petition is much different and coming from a different party," said Larry Scott, co-chairman of the Buffalo Parent-Teacher Organization, which filed one of the other petitions. "It represents a group of Buffalo parents who I think are most impacted by Mr. Paladino's comments and behavior. I hope in some way it gets included."
Staff writer Jay Rey contributed to this story.